I’m on the road this week. On Tuesday, sixty folks came to join the Stegner centennial conversation at Dixie College in St. George. On Wednesday, we had forty people in Springdale. On Friday, I move on to Kanab.
In St. George, I read from “Living Dry.” We contemplated that central fact of life in the Desert West so eloquently and repeatedly emphasized by Stegner: aridity.
In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, I found a poignant passage following John Wesley Powell through St. George after his 1869 voyage down the Grand Canyon. Just a few days before, three of his men had given up on the expedition and left the river at Separation Rapid. They couldn’t have known that only one last rapid remained. They made a terrible mistake.
The rest of the tiny band whirled out through the Grand Wash Cliffs and escaped from what they called their “granite prison.” In this passage, we left the river with the Major and his brother and headed back through St. George, hoping for word of their three companions. Halfway back to Salt Lake, news arrived. A group of Shivwits Paiutes who mistook the three for miners who had killed a Hualapai Indian woman across the river had carried out what they believed to be simple justice and killed them.
I talked the audience through Stegner’s life and career, meandering through the “Wilderness Letter,” Wolf Willow, Recapitulation, and “What I Learned”—Wally’s brief notes for a filmmaker working on a Stegner documentary. And then came the question that brought me up short, from a middle-aged woman in the audience who talked about how much she loved her favorite trail in the Wasatch Range, at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Her family called this well-worn path Granny’s Trail.
She went on, “I can never be out in nature without thinking about who created it. You went on and on about the connections Stegner makes to nature. But you left something out: the Almighty! Are you an atheist?”
I have to admit that I’ve never been asked this before by anyone in my audiences.
I answered as best I could. My family is Jewish—by culture and tradition and ethics. I have also come to believe in an energetic hum buzzing in the cosmos, a sense that the powers of the universe surround us—an awareness and acceptance on my part influenced by years of listening to American Indian people tell me about their dreams and stories. But I am not religious in the sense this woman was looking for, and in her eyes that probably makes me an atheist.
Nevertheless, I’ve grown more comfortable than my irreligious geologist father can ever be with a universal connection, a vibration that the best of us can tune into.
What about Stegner?
He respected other people’s faith. But he doesn’t make much of his own. Who am I to pontificate on his beliefs? But he actually tells us quite a bit, quite clearly. I think he treated the Bible as a text, a fundamental of Western literature. He reveled in the language. But he found his solace in the here-and-now, in the threads of history, in the reassuring universals of humanity surrounding him everywhere—what he called “the great community of recorded human experience.”
Wendell Berry’s description of Stegner’s approach to teaching, I think, illuminates Wally’s approach to life and to faith: “He did not pontificate or indoctrinate or evangelize. We were not expected to become Stegnerians.” Instead, Stegner showed a distinct “courtesy toward both past and future: courtesy toward the art of writing…courtesy toward…young writers.”
Stegner felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s Mormon ward houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the LDS Church. He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation.
In his “This I Believe” essay, written for the original “This I Believe” series created by Edward R. Murrow in the Fifties, Stegner talks not of God but of citizenship:
I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do…I believe in conscience.
… in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency, we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.
I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier that most of the world’s millions, I am more obligated.
Was Stegner an atheist? Am I an atheist?
You know what? The answers do not really matter.