Practicing Doubt, Redrawing Faith
Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He is the author of several books, including Paris to the Moon and Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. He has a new memoir, At the Strangers' Gate: Arrivals in New York. He wrote the foreword for The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner.
Krista Tippett, host: I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik with pleasure in the pages of The New Yorker, for many years. He might be most widely known for his reporting from France and his book Paris to the Moon, and he’s also recently published a new memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York. I enjoy his lyrical fascination with everything from Renaissance art to food, from parenting to science and religion, and we touch on all these things in the conversation that follows.
I decided to finally interview Adam in 2015, when I read the foreword he wrote to a book called The Good Book, in which an array of intellectual and literary figures reflect on the Bible. Adam Gopnik sums up a core irony of our secular age in this way: “Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith. We moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.”
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Adam Gopnik: I think that the negation of God doesn’t negate our morality, but the negation of God doesn’t supply us with morality, either; that those are things that we have to make up for ourselves, and the only way we can make them is to remake them, is to go back to and ask again, what are the values we inherit? Which ones count? Which ones don’t? We may be, ultimately, in the universe on our own, but we are not on Earth newly born. We descend from long lines of people who’ve asked similar questions. You can hold those two convictions simultaneously and passionately.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer, essayist, and commentator at The New Yorker since 1986. In addition to Paris to the Moon, he’s authored a number of books for children and adults, including the wonderful volume Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.
Ms. Tippett: It seems to me that you probably wouldn’t say that you had a religious upbringing, but there was certainly a very rich religious background to your family and to your childhood. Would you say it that way?
Mr. Gopnik: Yes, I think that’s true. It’s complicated and manifold. On my mother’s side of the family, I came from a long line of rabbis. That background, the rabbinical background, was very strong in my life. At the same time, my parents, by the standard turns and twists of generations, rejected the religious content of their own upbringing. So one of the strange things in my upbringing was that we celebrated Christmas with enormous intensity, because — it’s a long and complicated story — one of my mother’s relatives was actually Irish Catholic. And most of my early — I don’t know how to call it, exactly — spiritual experiences derived from this very strange, and yet hardly idiosyncratic, because it’s actually quite widespread — experience of a Jewish Christmas.
But for me, it was a portal to — I don’t know what to call it, Krista, without sounding a little crazy — it was a portal to thinking about numinous experience and daily experience. One of the things that came to be hugely important to me was — one of the portals of my own experience of the numinous, the spiritual, call it what you will — was Christmas music: the Bach Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah, medieval carols, which ultimately then led me to the great Christian poetry of that time, and particularly W.H. Auden’s great Nativity poem, “For the Time Being,” which became a kind of — I don’t want to call it a sacrament, but certainly, it was, then, when I was a young man coming of age and, to this day, not just one of the great poems, but one of the poems that’s most guided my own life.
Ms. Tippett: Can you say a little bit of that?
Mr. Gopnik: Sure. He saw his own erotic experience, and by extension the mixed-up and in every sense screwed-up erotic experience that we all have, as one of the ways that spiritual experience is offered to us — and I wish I could remember; I don’t have the poem in front of me now — but exactly to say that those of us whose experience of transcendence is rooted in our carnal passions still have a place at the “stable.” That’s essentially what the poem says.
Ms. Tippett: That’s wonderful.
Mr. Gopnik: And the basic idea is that there’s a very close, clandestine relationship between all of the miseries and joys of carnal love, and the truer miseries and joys of religious experience.
Ms. Tippett: Right. One thing I noticed, as I started reading through the sweep of your work, also — you say — you reflect in so many ways on the Bible and spiritual life and what is numinous and, as you said, daily and rational, and the contradictions between those things. And it also seemed to me that Darwin — that thinking about Darwin, reflecting on Darwin, being in dialogue with Darwin — is a real thread for you. And one of the things that you talk about, that you write so winsomely and that I just find so intriguing, is how Darwin has these notions of both “quick” time and “deep” time.
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, I’m touched that you saw it, because that was an important idea for me that — you know how that it is. Nobody noticed. [laughs] Yes, I think that’s true. One of the things that gives Darwin’s life and his work its enormous, almost tragic pathos is that he was aware — he became acutely aware of that. Evolution, biological evolution, only operates and only makes sense if you’re able to open your mind up to geological time, to the unbelievable expanse —
Ms. Tippett: As you say, “this vast abyss of time” is how you wrote it.
Mr. Gopnik: The vast abyss of time. And Darwin’s whole point is, it only takes place over these vast expanses of times that we can understand abstractly, but we can’t experience. And our own actual existence takes place in this tiny, brief lightning flash of existence. And that includes the life of ourselves and of our loved ones and of our children, particularly. And I talk in the book about his experience of his favorite daughter, Annie, and — who died tragically, young. And there’s no question —
Ms. Tippett: And what an imprint that left on him.
Mr. Gopnik: Yes, and that rhythm, that pathos, that tension between our actual experience of the people we love and the things that give meaning to our lives, so brief, so packed — something that only becomes more brief and more packed and more poignant as we age — against this limitless-seeming span of time that’s responsible for our particular forms and for our particular capacities. That’s a kind of pathos of which Darwin is acutely aware. And it’s essential, it seems to me, to — for lack of a better word — the spiritual experience of modern people that we have to have double vision of exactly that kind. We have to be doubled-eyed.
Ms. Tippett: It kind of echoes back at what you said a minute ago about Auden and this kind of interplay, this synergy between misery and love and the human struggle between beauty and terror, that is also there in religion. And you talked about — there’s this beautiful passage in Darwin, which I’ve quoted many times, which is from the very end of The Origin of Species, where he says, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” And you point out, so importantly, that we can only understand the fullness of that passage when we also look at passages of his where he talks about life in the moment. He says, “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life.” [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: Well, it’s funny that — I think you understand those passages particularly, if you understand them as, in effect, letters to Emma, his wife, whom he adored and who was a believer throughout her life. And for me, at least, some of the emotional pressure in those passages only makes sense if you see it as his way of saying to her, “I know what you believe, and I honor and love you for believing it. Here’s what I know about the world. Here’s what I know for certain, or near certain, is the way the universe actually operates. And here’s why it shouldn’t be a threat to your feelings and shouldn’t be a threat to your beliefs.”
It’s funny, because my oldest son, my only son, we called Auden. That’s his middle name, Luke Auden, after Auden.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, I did see that somewhere. Wonderful.
Mr. Gopnik: And had we had a second son, I think we would have given him Darwin as a middle name. So we would have had an Auden and a Darwin in the family.
Ms. Tippett: So if I ask you how your study of Darwin and your reverence for Darwin, how does it influence your sense of religion, how would you answer that question?
Mr. Gopnik: Well, it certainly influences my manner of writing, because I always see Darwin as a model of the act of explanation and of argument; the morality, the ethics of explanation, maybe. It affects my own — I don’t want to dignify myself by calling it a religion. But it affects my own feelings about the universe, because I think it’s demonstrative of the possibility that you can be completely committed to a rational, if you like, material explanation of existence, of why — how we got here, without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but that you can never fully rationalize what we feel here.
That’s central to Darwin’s distinction between the two kinds of time. That’s central to Darwin’s vision. And for me, Krista, that’s always been, in many ways, the hardest thing to explain and the hardest reconciliation to attempt, and I sometimes despair of ever making it adequately. And that is exactly that anybody who, like Darwin, who is committed to science is acutely aware of the limits of scientific explanation. The greatest philosopher of science in the 20th century, Karl Popper, always said that the realm of science was small and distinct; that there was a huge realm of human experience that would never be susceptible to scientific explanation. Now, that didn’t mean that it could be instantly subsumed in the supernatural but that there were realms of what, for lack of a better word — you can call it spiritual experience or numinous experience or irrational experience or simply the experience of sensibility; all the things that are summed up in Christmas carols and songs and poems and novels and spirituals and all the other ways we have of organizing our experience — that those things aren’t contradictory. And again, that’s central to Darwin’s sense of human existence, and I think it’s central to any person’s.
Ms. Tippett: Here’s something you wrote about Darwin: “Darwin disenchanted believers in heaven, but he reenchanted lovers of Earth. He thought he had found the secret of life, but he knew that nothing could solve the problems of living. That takes all the time we have.”
Mr. Gopnik: That sums up what I think is exactly right. He really believed, accurately, that he had discovered the secret of life. He had found the reason that species change. But nothing could explain the mysteries of living. And I think that we live in that double experience.
Ms. Tippett: Which is also the confusion that often brings us to the religious part of life and the things that religion brings into the world, like community and ritual and texts and teachings.
Mr. Gopnik: Teachings and practices and — I think that that’s one of the things that — it’s funny, I was just writing about something the other day, Krista, because I’m trying to write a book right now of memoirs of coming to New York in the 1980s and what that was all like. And one of the things that occurred to me is that — I was in the art world in those years. I was hanging out, getting a degree in art history, God help me, and all that. And the weird thing about it is that I realized then that understanding modern art really was like a religion, inasmuch as it was a practice before it was a dogma: that you could never really get it by understanding the way one picture had changed another, how Cubism had created Expressionism, which created Surrealism, and so on; that it was a practice of interpretation.
And I think that that’s something that is still insufficiently well understood, that what religion brings us is not a dogma but a practice. That’s the rich thing it brings us. That’s the significant thing that it brings us, and that the idea of having a spiritual practice is one that’s completely compatible with the idea of being extremely skeptical of dogma; that those two things are not at war. They may be in tension, the way so many rich things in our life are in tension, but they’re not at war.
[music: “Afterlife” by Jon Hopkins]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.
[music: “Afterlife” by Jon Hopkins]
Ms. Tippett: Einstein used to draw — see echoes — he would say that a sense of wonder is at the heart of the best of religion and science and the arts, when he used to see those things as, at their heart, overlapping in that way, speaking to each other.
Mr. Gopnik: Absolutely. I think that the — where science and certain aspects of religiosity do part company is, science demands that we be skeptical even of our own favorite theories. And there’s an aspect, there’s a side of religious tradition that is like that, that demands that we be argumentative about them. I did — before Yom Kippur this year, I did a talk at one of the local synagogues. I’m not a good enough Jew to be confident that God will be writing my name down in the Book, but I was thinking, “I’m here, I’m talking. I’m doing my bit, God. Don’t be too harsh.” And one of the things I was saying is that one of my favorite art historical treasures is the — what’s called the Darmstadt Haggadah, which is a medieval Jewish illuminated manuscript. There aren’t very many of them. And all it shows is Jews arguing about the text. And that’s a very — as you know, a very, very important part of Jewish ways.
Ms. Tippett: Moses quarreled with God. It’s there.
Mr. Gopnik: Exactly. If there’s something distinct about Jewish interpretive tradition, it’s that it’s an argumentative tradition. We argue with God. We argue with each other. We argue with the text. And I think that that’s a really rich way of thinking about the part of faith that really does have a significant overlap with the way we read all kinds of great books and with the way that we go about understanding the world.
Ms. Tippett: You wrote a piece in 2014 that I really loved, in The New Yorker, called “Bigger Than Phil.” And in that piece, you reflected on the ironic way we can debate — and I say “we” — I also — in educated circles, about whether God is winning or losing, or religion is in or out. But you did say that there’s a directly, frankly contemptuous tone about faith that is relatively new in the last 20 years.
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, I mean the so-called “new atheists,” of course, with whom I have a great deal of intellectual sympathy, are more belligerent in their tone. Tone matters a lot. Tone and temperament, I think, matter a great deal. But one thing that was, I found, disturbing about — and to be honest with you about that, the aftermath of that piece, which I knew was going to be controversial in the way such things always are, is, I was trying to make the point that anybody of — even the most violent rationalist always had within their own practice, their own imagination, their own way of relishing the world, they always had particular, idiosyncratic irrationalities. We all do.
Ms. Tippett: And I have to say, what I found most gripping in that piece, the subtler, more enduring point, I think, aside from the battle between the new atheists and the religious, is this idea that — and this is how you said it: “Modern people are drawn to faith while practicing doubt, just as our ancestors professed doubt even as they practiced faith.”
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, don’t you think that’s true?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it’s such an — but as you say, it’s taking many forms. It’s very fluid. It’s very fluid. It’s not structured, as that old established faith could be.
Mr. Gopnik: Right, and one of the things that’s always, I think, emphasized by — whatever; people of faith or religious mystics — is that there can’t be any true faith that isn’t susceptible to enormous sieges of doubt. But I think in our time, those of us who grow up in doubt, who accept scientific skepticism as a foundational part of our worldview, also are drawn again and again to kinds of faith, to spiritual practice.
My sister Alison was drawn at a crisis moment in her life, as she writes about very beautifully in The Atlantic Monthly, to the practice of Buddhism, because it seemed to offer spiritual avenues that were essential to her life then, and then found it coming back around again to David Hume and the psychology that she believed in. We talked earlier about how irrationally I’ve been drawn to the music of Christmas my whole life in literature, and as a way to the assertion of, or of the recognition of, the multitude of experience we have.
Ms. Tippett: Well, there’s a lovely passage in the article you wrote, again, where you said: “True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thorough-going rationalists.” Say some more about that.
Mr. Gopnik: Well, it comes back to the point I was making, that we as doubters practice faith as our believing ancestors practiced doubt in their lives. I remember it was very — my father, as I said, strongly rejected the religion of his fathers, the explicit Judaism that he had inherited. Our Jewishness was visible on us through the marks of the eraser, which were stronger than the writing — act of writing itself. And he said to me once, when we were — when I was growing up, he said — we were crossing over a river in the car. He said, “You know, I always say a prayer when I’m in a big body of water, river or ocean. I always do.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Mr. Gopnik: And that stayed with me. And I have my own little meditation practice. Every day, I do 20 minutes of breathing and inwardness. And at the end of it — and you’ll forgive me for this embarrassing revelation, but I always — and I never thought about it, but it’s really, I suppose, it’s in affinity with my father — I bow, at the end of it, to the four rivers that have mattered most in my life.
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, and my children think, appropriately, it’s the most hilarious thing that they’ve ever seen in their life, and they’ll snicker and prod each other at it. And it’s one of those moments when you don’t mind looking ridiculous, when you know you’re looking ridiculous, and you hope that in the long run, it’ll have some significance for them. And I think that I may be more ridiculous than most of my contemporaries, but I think we all participate in some form or another of that ridiculousness, some form of irrational ritual that’s essential to our existence.
And in that sense, I know very, very few thoroughgoing rationalists. I essentially know none.
And I think that’s part of the richness of modern living. And I think that we have a right and a license to make up our practices of the many practices that we’re exposed to and have inherited.
Ms. Tippett: Well, what I really appreciate about the way you reflect on this and write about it is that you do, you talk about the syncretic mixture of rituals that we come up with as modern people, but you do it — there’s a tenderness to it. Whatever this is that we’re trying to address in ourselves and in human experience, it’s in the nature of the thing that what we’re doing doesn’t completely make sense, and yet it has meaning. And you did …
Mr. Gopnik: To be mixed up, yeah. The point I was trying to make, Krista, is that all religious experience, as far back as we can take it, none of it is pure, authentic, unadulterated. The Christianity practiced in the year 100 is radically unlike Christian practice now. Christians don’t always like to admit that, but it’s so. Same thing is true of Judaism. Same thing is true of all the great religious traditions. They have changed within themselves, have taken on the coloration of their time and temperament and of the local color, as much as anything can. So any notion of a one — of a true, authentic faith always leads us backwards towards fundamentalism. And fundamentalism is a betrayal of the varieties of religious experience, not an assertion of them.
So I think that if you’re a New York City father, when your kids turn 13, one of the things that happens is, you go through the Bar Mitzvah year or the Bat Mitzvah year. And you can’t help but have a little smile on your face as you see the desperate ways in which people try to reconcile a very ancient and complicated religion of Judaism with contemporary, materialist, competitive New York.
Ms. Tippett: Right. [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: And it’s often extremely comic — the scale of the invitations, the nature of the celebrations, and so on. But you also recognize that there’s something fundamentally healthy about that, that it’s our task as people to find new ways of rearticulating our sense of spiritual practice, our sense of the essential, the necessity of irrational ritual, in ways that are adjusted to their time. And I think that’s more beautiful than it is absurd, though it is at times absurd.
Ms. Tippett: You did — you talked about Upper West Side Bar Mitzvahs, where the 13-year-olds interpret their texts into an acceptable NPR editorial. But also, you — there’s this moment, and again, I keep coming back to that piece, “Bigger Than Phil,” where you talk about how the hardest rationalists, people who would define themselves that way, still “they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate on the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles.” At the end, you talk about them going to services and leaving early — but, you said, “You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.”
Mr. Gopnik: Yes, well, that’s self-description, I think, as much as anything. It’s something that I’m acutely aware of when we go off to Christmas Eve services, which we do with a clear conscience, because my wife’s background —
Ms. Tippett: Lutheran.
Mr. Gopnik: But in any case, I’m always aware that I am the weepy one in the back, and unashamed of it.
[music: “Varosha” by Hauschka]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Adam Gopnik through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Varosha” by Hauschka]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a conversation with the distinctively wise and lyrical New Yorker staff writer, Adam Gopnik. We’re speaking about the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations, from parenting to the arts to science. He’s also written an introduction for a book called The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers reflect on their favorite biblical passages.
Ms. Tippett: In this foreword you wrote to this book called The Good Book, even your opening line — “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” which is from the Psalms, and “And how should we read the Bible in a secular age?” — there’s something about the way you’ve written it, and I don’t know if this was intentional, where even in the language you use, that it’s kind of an illustration of the fact that the questions and vocabulary of this book, whatever you think of it, continue to have this — to be appealing and apt in some way.
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, I wanted that rhythm. I wanted to have the sense of that Jacobean, King James version kind of rhythm, because I thought that was a way into it. One of the things I wanted to say in the introduction to The Good Book was that the question before us isn’t so much “Should we continue to read these stories?” We do continue to read those stories. It’s not “Should we continue to be inspired by the Psalms?” We are inspired by the Psalms. We study Italian Renaissance art. It’s part of our common heritage. It’s not a realistic choice to say we will rationalize ourselves out of this side of our inheritance. The question is, how do you approach it?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, how do we do it?
Mr. Gopnik: How do we do it?
Ms. Tippett: There’s also something in there about — that echoes what we said a minute ago, that for you — and I’m with you on this, that when people think about what’s interesting about religion, the humanity is such — every bit as fascinating as the divinity, and every bit as central.
Mr. Gopnik: I think that’s true. What’s a special quality or virtue of, if you like, Jewish myth, of Biblical myth? And it’s exactly that it’s people. It’s people, unforgettable people engaged in…
Ms. Tippett: Real — and real people, so flawed, so well-rounded and incomplete.
Mr. Gopnik: It’s Job yelling at his God. It’s David and Saul. Is there any more deeply moving relationship?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, Jacob.
Mr. Gopnik: You recognize the kid who’s got all the potentiality, and the king who knows it and hates him and loves him at the same time. How many relationships does that describe? All of those things are — and it carries through, I think, to the Gospels, that one of the things that makes Jesus — I’ve written at length about Jesus. Whether an imaginary character or a well-reported player, one of the things that makes him so riveting is his enormous impatience with the people around him and his almost carefree morality: “Don’t worry so much about who’s going to take care of you. The flowers don’t worry. Don’t you worry so much. Be — feel free.” Or, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you take into your mouth, all that matters is what comes out of your mouth.” And you can just see everyone around him — “What did he say? What did he just say?” And that’s tough, I think; it’s the ability to create compelling character in the deepest sense. And the thing that makes character, character, is contradiction. And the Bible is filled with people who have deeply contradictory characters.
Ms. Tippett: Including God, by the way.
Mr. Gopnik: Including God; above all, God, who’s there as a benevolent shepherd and is also there as a violent demiurge; who’s there in all of those ways. And that’s one of the things that I say in the introduction: Of all those characters, all those contradictory characters, the character of the divine is the most contradictory and, in some ways, therefore, the most compelling.
Ms. Tippett: So your children — your love for your children, your life with your children, the questions they raise in you, the reflections they spark in you — also runs all the way through your writing. You also wrote in a — have written in a wonderful way about children and what the philosophers call the “problem of consciousness.” [laughs] I think children also bring us back to philosophical and theological questions in a new way, and I’d love to just hear about that.
Mr. Gopnik: Oh, all the time. I’m one of those people for whom the moment when children appeared was as close to a religious experience as any I hope to have. I was blessed to have it happen twice. Partly because of the miracle of consciousness, you suddenly — a fictive being, the baby who will be born, becomes an actual human being. And you look into those eyes, and you say, “Those eyes are looking back at me, and that little head in its little woolen cap contains the world fully, as my head contains the world.” It’s an astonishing thing. You never come to the end of it.
But one of the things that’s true, I think, is that you get to the core of human experience through watching your kids. I wrote an essay once, called “Death of a Fish,” which was…
Ms. Tippett: Yes, I know. I read it. [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: On the surface — I always say that good essays have to have an apparent object and a buried subject. Well, the apparent object of this essay was my then-five-year-old daughter Olivia’s fish, Bluie.
Ms. Tippett: A goldfish that was not actually a goldfish.
Mr. Gopnik: A goldfish that was not actually a goldfish and was actually standing in for a dog, which we only got much later — died. And we decided to go what my wife called the “full Vertigo,” in honor of the Hitchcock movie, and replace that bluefish with another bluefish without telling Olivia. Of course, she sensed instantly that it was not the same fish, and she was grief-stricken. She was grief-stricken by it. And at the same time, my son Luke was five years older, and he had become aware of the problem of consciousness. And he kept asking me, “What does Bluie feel?” — the little fish. “Did he know he was alive, so he can know, in some sense, that he’s dead? Was he ever aware that he was alive?”
Those are deep questions. And what I realized, in watching Olivia’s grief over a little fish that was probably never conscious fully in our sense and that was certainly no more conscious than the flounder we ate for dinner, is that the price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality. That’s exactly the price we pay for it. We have this extraordinary gift of knowing that we are alive, and the price we pay for it is knowing that things die, in ways that almost no other creature does. And I was just overwhelmed by that, sitting up with Olivia one night in this absurd grief for a tiny bluefish, and I realized that that was the equation of human existence.
Ms. Tippett: You and I have beloved children who are just about the same age, young adults now, at the same college. And I’m thinking a lot now about —you talked about the mystery of this actual human being in front of you, which has loss and celebration all together — back to Auden, back to the Bible — the mystery of the fact that these people you gave birth to and raised are these surprising strangers; that you continue to discover them, and they continue to emerge in ways that you feel you had nothing to do with that is so remarkable.
Mr. Gopnik: You never get over it, that it’s not one person that you love and would give your life for; it’s many people, and they continue to come at you in new ways. And the kids are utterly who they always have been, and they’re utterly new. And then this terrible thing happens, Krista — it’s not terrible, it’s wonderful; but it’s also kind of terrible — that you say to yourself, I cannot imagine the day when a child will leave home, because my entire life for 20 years has been structured around daily interchanges with this person. That’s basically what I do. I work, I drink caffeine, and I talk to Luke. Those were the three things — and Olivia, my younger daughter. That’s what my life is about.
And then they’re gone. And you’re totally wrenched by that. And then you realize, of course, you did exactly the same thing to your parents. And the interstices of texting and conversations become a little more elongated every day, and you’re pathetically grateful when the phone rings, and it’s your kid, and that they actually want to talk to you about something — usually late at night, and they’re moved by a poem, or they’re desperate for some advice or something. And you realize that that’s the strength of your relationship, is exactly that the interstices between phone calls get longer rather than getting shorter.
Ms. Tippett: And that’s what you raised them for, right? We were actually raising them not to be our great children, but to go out in the world and have lives.
Mr. Gopnik: And not to be our dependents, and, we hope, not to feel our pain. And ultimately, we wanted them to have the same relationship to us that we have most often to our own parents, which is one of limitless pity and toleration, right?
Ms. Tippett: Right. [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: [laughs] That’s the most we can ask for.
[music: “I Don’t Waste My Tears On You” by Powel]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik.
[music: “I Don’t Waste My Tears On You” by Powel]
Ms. Tippett: You were writing about a family reunion, and — I think that was recently. And you used this very evocative phrase I wanted to ask you to draw out: “the difference between those of us who are growing and those of us who are aging.” And I think what you’ve been talking about is part of that dynamic for you now, but would you say some more about the distinction there?
Mr. Gopnik: Yes, thank you, Krista. That was a thing I just wrote about three months ago, four months ago. We did a big family reunion. I come from this enormous family of six kids. And one of the things that struck me this time, when we were there, is that pretty much everybody under the age of 35 is still growing. They’re discovering. They’re finding themselves. And you look at them, they look better, and they look more like themselves than they did before. And all of us who are on the other side of that are aging, [laughs] and we eye each other suspiciously — getting a little tubbier, a little grayer, a little balder, a little flatter.
But the good thing about that, I have discovered — I would insist — is, though it’s true that those of us on this side are merely aging rather than actually growing, with every family reunion — we have them every ten years or so — you realize that the border of youth recedes. And as I said, I think it must be the fourth dimension, because some strange principle is at work there that means that people our age never really look old, even though we know we’re aging. I don’t know what can possibly explain that, but I do think it’s true. And I think that graciousness, if not grace, resides in being able to recognize that — again, that same duality, which is not a million miles removed from Darwin’s duality, from the duality of immediate time and long time. In this case, it’s maturation versus mortality. The under-35s are approaching the mature point. Us mature ones are approaching our mortal point. And we have to accept it with as much grace as we can summon up. And it’s not easy.
Ms. Tippett: Let’s just circle back a little bit to this spiritual stuff, which actually, we have never left. We just have taken a wonderful route through it. I think it feels important to you to — however we live with this stuff or talk about it or just exhibit it around our children, that we don’t make this too easy for ourselves. You use phrases like the “fudginess of faith,” the “soupiness of doubt,” “mushy” all-purpose humanism, which I notice are all kind of bad food texture metaphors… [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: As you know, I am a food lover. I’m a cook.
Ms. Tippett: Which is also a way — yeah. [laughs] Yeah, so I think that’s significant.
Mr. Gopnik: So when I’m looking for something really visceral, it’s always food.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Mushy, fudgy, soupy — just say a little bit about that.
Mr. Gopnik: Well, I don’t remember the exact context in which I was writing that, but I think…
Ms. Tippett: Oh, these are from different places. I was collecting these bad food texture metaphors.
Mr. Gopnik: Right. Oh, good. I think that — I wrote a whole book called The Table Comes First that was just devoted to the spiritual side of gluttony. One of the things that’s a challenge, I guess, Krista, and maybe if I can put it this way, is that those of us who are genuinely of an unashamedly secular and skeptical and scientific turn of mind, but who nonetheless have huge regard for the great realm of experience that — call it what you will, spiritual sensibility however we define it — is, we don’t want to just become soupy, synthetic thinkers. We don’t want to just say, “Oh, well, anything goes. If you feel good about it, have at it.” That’s like bad table discipline. But at the same time, we don’t — we want to say to such people, “Hey, wait a second. You don’t get an instant out by citing your doubt when there’s something wrong with your faith; you have to be willing to own up to the contradictions in your own creed.” And I think that that’s what I was referencing in those sections, I think, is that we have to toughen up our own belief.
There are — in life, there are simply incommensurable beliefs. It would be nice for people of a basically conciliatory turn of mind to believe that we can always reconcile all the varieties of faith, of religious experience, of scientific understanding, and we can’t. We can’t. That’s not one of the possibilities that’s open to us, and we have to be tough-minded and clear-headed about that. That doesn’t mean we can’t practice tolerance in the longest and largest possible mode, but we can’t pretend that we all ultimately believe the same thing. We don’t all ultimately believe the same thing.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and actually, that’s where I think your emphasis on tone is helpful, because you have a skepticism — not a skepticism; you see a tension in tolerance, which I really — I’m with you on that, that we don’t want a world without passion, and we don’t want a world without conviction, and that there’s kind of a creative tension in insisting on tolerance, and it’s kind of how we do it and how we keep that integrity.
Mr. Gopnik: One of the great things about modern civilization, one of the great things, if I may say, about liberal civilization — and I am a liberal before all else. “Liberal,” for me, is a positive, constructive, aggressive term, because it refers to a very radical and revolutionary set of beliefs. And among those beliefs is the belief that you can have genuine disagreement, passionate, profound disagreement, and still incorporate those kinds of passion and profound disagreements in a broad fabric of tolerance; that being tolerant doesn’t mean being wishy-washy or limp and saying, “Oh well, they — everybody’s got their point of view, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fundamentalist or a secularist.”
Ms. Tippett: Right, that’s why you don’t want tolerance be mushy, fudgy, or soupy, either.
Mr. Gopnik: Exactly. Exactly. Tolerance isn’t a soupy doctrine, it’s a plate-by-plate doctrine. It says, there’s a place for you at the table, but you have a different diet than we do. And that’s — that, I think, is — that kind of clarity, I think, is terribly important. And it’s that kind of clarity that I would oppose to fudgy soupiness, which pretends that there aren’t real and vital distinctions to be made amongst what people believe; that we can’t simply constantly assimilate radically different world views to one common, goopy substance. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t stretch the fabric of tolerance — if you like, the table of tolerance — and make it as long as we possibly can.
Ms. Tippett: Wonderful. I think I want to read just another couple more beautiful sentences from this foreword you wrote to The Good Book on the subject of morality, which is a subject that gets very fraught when we talk about it in public. You said, “No moral idea worth preserving has been lost as the idea of God has diminished.” But then a few sentences later, you also say, “The paradox in our history has been that the renewal of humanism has come about most often, and the most arresting questions asked of it, by reexamining the old stories and asking them new questions.”
Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, well, what I tried to say in that section is that there are many ways, many heroic ethical systems that are built on the foundation of non-belief. That’s the way John Stuart Mill builds his ethics, and many other great thinkers. So we don’t necessarily lose anything. But at the same time — this is a point that I think you can never make enough: Atheism, non-belief, may be a fact about the world, but humanism — humanism is a thing we invent. It’s a thing we make. It’s a set of values we make. So just as the assertion of God doesn’t give you a value system, the denial of God does not give you a value system, either.
Those systems are things we have to make for ourselves. And we make them, as we’ve been talking all this time, usually by addressing the old ones. We’re not capable of making everything up for ourselves. So we go back to ethical systems and value systems that we’ve inherited, whether it’s my sister’s version of Buddhism, my own version of Nativity faith — whatever it might be, we go back to them, and we remake them. We interrogate them. We remake them to find values within them that give meaning to our lives and sense to our “generations,” in the Biblical sense. We may be, ultimately, in the universe on our own, but we are not on Earth newly born. We descend from long lines of people who’ve asked similar questions. You can hold those two convictions simultaneously and passionately.
Ms. Tippett: Wonderful. Let me just ask you this in closing. We talked a minute ago about the difference between those of us who are growing and those of us who are aging, and I think you, like me, even though we’re very young and vital, still feel like we’re on that — we are aging, and it’s a fascinating thing. Was there anything about — when you were asked to write this chapter about the Bible, was there anything in what came up in you that surprised you, that was maybe an approach you have to this that wouldn’t have been there in your 20s or your 40s, that you were aware of?
Mr. Gopnik: Oh, gosh. That’s a big question, and I have to think for a moment. As I’ve stopped growing and started aging, I think that you become — this is hardly an original insight of mine — you become acutely aware of the rapidity of the passage of time. I’m acutely aware that when writing about the 1980s now, which seem like yesterday to me, I’m writing about a lost historical period, a time that’s as remote for my kids as the 1940s were for me, growing up. And I think that you become — I don’t know if I can put this well, Krista — you become more concerned with describing the texture of experience before it can vanish than you do with shaping the necessities of experience for your own time.
How that affects the way you would approach writing about reading the Bible is maybe complicated, but if there’s a connection there, I think that it’s a way of saying, “Look, here’s the truth. People have been reading these books and looking at the pictures this book inspires and listening to the music that this book inspires for about as long as there have been people.” That truth is in itself a truth. Whatever you make of all the attendant religious, supernatural claims around it, the truth about human engagement with, in this case, with scripture, is in itself a significant thing.
And it’s not — that perception, maybe, Krista, isn’t completely divorced from your perception that time is racing. And trying to witness your own experience is about as close as you can get — witness your own experience accurately and fully and passionately — is about as close as you can hope to get to writing another chapter in the ongoing book.
Ms. Tippett: This is some language from that Good Book foreword: “The fugue of doubt and faith experienced as argument and art is the music of our lives.”
Mr. Gopnik: That puts it much more epigrammatically, what I was struggling to say.
Ms. Tippett: That’s quite a beautiful way to say what you’re saying. [laughs]
Mr. Gopnik: That puts more — that’s why I’m a writer, not a speaker, because that puts much more aphoristically what I’ve been struggling to say in the last few minutes. John Updike was once asked why — for an ad, I think, like a whiskey ad or some crazy thing — why are we here? Why do we live? Sounds like a ridiculous question, but he had an instant answer for it. He said, “We’re here to give praise.” We’re here to give praise. All of our religious teaching and all of our spiritual experience can be summed up in that conception: we’re on earth to give praise.
And I love that idea. And of course, one of the things that makes Updike’s writing so moving, even now, is that it largely was devoted to — did not scant the horrors of existence, but it was largely devoted to recapturing the momentary happinesses of ordinary experience. And his spirituality was, in effect, boded forth in terms of recreating, crystallizing the ecstatic moments in life. And if I have a faith, it lies someplace in that impulse.
[music: “Where Dirt Meets Water” by Codes in the Clouds]
Ms. Tippett: Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He is the author of several books, including Paris to the Moon, Angels and Ages, and, more recently, At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York. He also wrote the foreword for The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner.
[music: “Where Dirt Meets Water” by Codes in the Clouds]
Staff: On Being is: Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Jill Gnos, Laurén Dørdal, and Gisell Calderón.
[music: “Distant Street Lights” by Codes in the Clouds]
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.