On Richard Rodriguez

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Listen to Chris Robinson’s conversation with Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez at the Pacific News Service 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2010. Photo: New American Media, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Richard Rodriguez at the Pacific News Service 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2010. Photo: New American Media, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Listeners will know Richard Rodriguez from his years of work as an essayist and commentator on the PBS NewsHour.  As engaging a speaker as Rodriguez is, his best work is found in his essays and memoirs. He is the author of Hunger of Memory, Brown, Days of Obligation, and the brand new Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

Rodriguez’s writing can have an incendiary quality, as when he takes up questions of ethnic identity and immigration. But he is mostly a quietly intelligent writer.  His pace is slow and deliberate so that he can notice more than those who speed by, destination bound.

It is where Richard Rodriguez likes to walk and think that is truly unique.  He finds narrow paths, sometimes nothing more than a tightrope wire, between boundaries.

In Darling, he explores the three religions that sprung from Abraham in a desert culture that is austere, dangerous, and prone to spiritual visions.  Rodriguez notes that he is dependent upon and has been shaped by these religions.  They nourish his identity from within, and yet they limit this same identity with coercive force from the outside.

Richard Rodriguez is a gay man who is a practicing Catholic. His devotion is rewarded with exclusion rather than with a place of honor in this institution so integral to his self-identity.  In every interview I have seen or read with him, he is asked why he remains a Catholic. His answer is that it is his spiritual home, and he is protected there not by the hierarchy, but by women who are also relegated to a subjugated status. “It is because the Church needs women that I depend upon women to protect the Church from its impulse to cleanse itself of me,” he writes. There is paradox here. But out of the friction of threatened expulsion comes a love and compassion, forged in experience, for the suffering of others.

Each essay that composes Darling was written after 9/11. For Rodriguez, the attacks of that day illuminated another line of unnecessary suspicion and blame between the three religions of Abraham. Those attacks also inaugurated an era where Americans turned to a hostile form of atheism to express their anger at the violent impulses and intolerance at the heart of organized faiths.

Rodriguez writes this memoir as a response to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others who formed the “New Atheism.”  His argument, crafted and supported beautifully in the pages of Darling, is that the prayers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are cries of fear and helplessness by beings who suffer and die, and therefore cannot see and know everything.  This darkness and mystery of finitude, so central to what it means to be a human, must be embraced for it is the source of humility that breeds love and protects us from the destructive hubris manifested in Hiroshima, drone strikes, and other emblems of scientific “progress.”