Christopher Beha left the Catholic church and then came back. Now he’s writing a book about why.
In July 2012, just two months after publishing his first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha spoke to NPR’s Terry Gross about faith, doubt, writing and mortality. Looking back on that book’s publication and that interview 10 years later, I wanted to know if Beha’s ideas, particularly about faith and writing, had changed since then. He agreed to an interview with America to discuss exactly that.
Beha is the editor of Harper’s Magazine and has also published the novels The Index of Self-Destructive Acts and Arts & Entertainments as well as the memoir The Whole Five Feet. At the time of the publication of Sophie Wilder, Beha had left the Catholic Church. Since then, he has returned. I was curious to know what brought him back.
“What needs to happen for one who has lost faith or did not ever have faith is a turning. A turning of the heart.”
“There isn’t a short answer and in fact that’s the subject of the book that I’m working on right now,” Beha said. “I sort of tried to give the answer in the form of an essay, and it turned into what’s probably going to be close to a 400-page book. I wish I could easily condense it. I think I’d say this: Very soon after leaving the church, I came to be extremely dissatisfied, both intellectually and emotionally, with the primary alternative to theism in our culture, which is what I would call scientific materialism—a sort of mainstream atheism in its contemporary form.”
While writing Sophie Wilder, Beha already felt dissatisfied with the options he had found: “I was in search of alternatives for a long time and it was an active search. I wasn’t just occasionally troubled with the thought, ‘Oh, I should really figure out answers to some of these ultimate questions.’ It felt very pressing for me,” he said. Part of the reason was that two experiences made him aware of mortality from a young age: He had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, when he was younger; and his twin brother was in a serious accident that almost took his life.
“What I can say,” Beha asserted, “is that the Catholic Church had always been my home in very important ways. One of the things that I’m thinking about quite a bit in this book is the idea that faith—even if you believe that it can be rationally justified—is not something one can simply choose to do.”
For example, “You can decide ‘It’s going to be good for my children if I raise them within the church,’ or ‘It’s going to be good for me if I display the outer signs of belief,’ but those are obviously something very, very different,” he said. “What needs to happen for one who has lost faith or did not ever have faith is a turning. A turning of the heart.”
"One of the things [my illness] taught me is that there’s a kind of suffering that nothing can insulate you from, and that we’re all vulnerable."
“But you can’t choose [faith], I don’t think. That’s where I’ve come to,” he continued. “I think if I were going to choose, I would have chosen Unitarianism or some kind of rationalist structure that gives you a lot of what people consider the kind of social or psychological benefits of faith, without involving you on a metaphysical commitment,” he said. “I tried that for a little while and it didn’t work for me. And at a certain point, I started going to Mass again by myself, not telling anybody except my wife. I didn’t know what my intentions really were except that it was something I felt called to do. And after some time of that, I felt like a restless soul who had found my home again.”
When Beha first began experiencing the symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 22, it took many steps to discover that he had cancerous tumors in his body, and then even more to learn that they hadn’t gotten into his bones, which was important for responding to treatment. He knew his body was falling apart and didn’t know why for a long time. “That’s a lot for a 22-year-old kid to take in,” he said.
I asked Beha if his illness has affected his understanding of suffering, and if he sees that showing up in his writing. He noted that growing up with a lot of privilege in a townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, as he did, he could have been insulated from many of life’s hardships. “One of the things [my illness] taught me is that there’s a kind of suffering that nothing can insulate you from, and that we’re all vulnerable. You certainly can’t be protected from it by material goods, by wealth.”
He was very lucky, he added, to have a family that could support him emotionally through his illness; to receive life-saving treatment in a country with access to health care; and to be among those who could pay for it. But the experience also helped him understand the limits of what we can do to protect a person from pain and suffering.
Many of Beha’s essays in Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere in the past few years show that his experiences with pain and suffering—and how they relate to larger questions of life’s meaning—remain central themes: “Because God Did Not Relax: The difficult pleasures of William Gaddis”; “Difficulties Everywhere: Can Kierkegaard tell us how to live?”; “How to Read the Bible: The Gospel according to John (and Karen)”; and “The Myth of Progress: On John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism.”
“Writing is a central part of the project of my life, and my Catholicism is an essential part of the project of my life, so they are inevitably bound up with each other.”
In his interview with Gross ten years ago, Beha discussed with her whether every person has the “capacity for faith.” He had more to say in our interview: “Some people are kind of tone deaf to [faith]. I think there are people who do not actually have faith in God, but for whom the religious context makes powerful sense. They see a lot of beauty in it, and they get what’s nourishing about it and all that.”
“Now, that’s separate from having faith, but there are people that have that. And then there’s some people, among atheists, who think the whole thing is just completely absurd,” he told me. “Could something come along in their lives that changes that? Sure. Certainly I have to believe that everybody ultimately has that capacity, that God would not finally deny people the possibility of belief.”
From observing people in his day-to-day life and having conversations with friends (some religious, others not), Beha recognized that some people understand on an intuitive level how membership in a religious tradition could offer meaning; others were simply baffled that someone who struck them as an otherwise rational and intelligent person would embrace supernatural entities.
Beha’s return to his faith did not make him think his job as a writer was to serve as a Catholic witness, but he acknowledged its influence on his work. “I don’t think of my writing as a form of apologetics. I don’t think of it as a form of proselytizing,” he said. “Writing is a central part of the project of my life, and my Catholicism is an essential part of the project of my life, so they are inevitably bound up with each other.”
“There are things I am trying to figure out about the world, and my spiritual, religious life is a part of the effort to do that,” he continued. “The honest truth is that most of the time I’m writing, I’m writing to sort things out for myself. I’m not thinking that much about what effect the work will have on the reader.”
Beha himself is a prodigious reader: He said that reading great literature is a central part of his day-to-day existence. (His memoir, The Whole Five Feet, is about a project he set himself to read all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics, known as the Five-Foot Shelf). “A day in which I haven’t spent at least a little time engaged with literature—not just reading something, but reading something that does the things that great literature does—feels like a lost day. It’s a big part of the richness, the fabric of my life. When I’m not reading a book that I feel is engaging me in the way that great literature does, I feel like a less fully human person.” He later called this feeling being “soul sick.”
What are the works of great literature that have inspired him? He mentioned first Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. He first read it during a summer in high school, again in his 20s and then again in his 30s. “Now, at 42, I’m due for the 40s’ reading of it,” he laughed. “I expect it will be a book that I try to read at least once every decade of my life. I just think you can return to it again and again. There’s so much there and there’s so much wisdom in it. At each period in your life, I think you can read it in a different way.”
Among contemporary writers, Beha named Annie Dillard and Don DeLillo as favorites.
Proust himself, Beha noted, described a great book as “a lens with which a reader reads him or herself. And I think that’s certainly what that book does. You can always return to it because you’re always going to be slightly changed from the person you were the last time you read it. And in that sense, it will be a new book because it will be reflecting a new self to you.”
Proust is not the only central canonical writer who has had a significant influence on Beha. “You’d like to have a kind of hipster list where you’ve got something that no one’s really heard of, but the truth is George Eliot is very important to me. Tolstoy is very important to me,” he said. “Dostoyevsky is very important to me. Henry James is very important to me.” When he feels like he’s gone a long time without getting something out of the literature he’s reading, he reads a short story by Henry James.
Among contemporary writers, he named Annie Dillard and Don DeLillo as favorites. Another recent treasure was Lucky Per by Henrik Pontoppidan, a Danish novel that was only recently translated into English. “It was written at the turn of the last century. He won the Nobel Prize in 1917. And the book is astonishingly good. It’s at that level with those people I was talking about: James, Tolstoy and people like that.”
Since he’s a fan of Henry James’s short stories, I asked Beha if he sees himself ever writing in that form. “My wife makes fun of me because I am always saying. ‘I’m going to start a short story,’ and it always turns into the next novel,” he laughed. “I don’t know what it is, I just can’t write short stories. I got an M.F.A. and I didn’t write short stories in graduate school, which is the time when everyone writes them. That’s what you do in those workshops. And instead, I worked on a novel in 50-page increments, which was terrible.”
Beha listed two short story writers as favorites: Mavis Gallant and Franz Kafka. He even somewhat prefers James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners to Ulysses, he noted. But there is nothing like the novel for him as a reader. “It seems to be where I go when I’m writing fiction,” he said. “And every time I’ve attempted to write a short story, I either give up on it because it stops engaging me, or it continues to engage me and it becomes a novel.”
Beha listed two short story writers as favorites: Mavis Gallant and Franz Kafka. He even somewhat prefers James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners to Ulysses.
When he’s writing, Beha said, he abandons many of his ideas: “I definitely try not to hold on too tightly to whatever the original idea was. I let the process work itself out. But I often find that you kind of intuitively know when you hit on [something], when you start going down a certain direction.”
His latest project, mentioned above, is a book about his spiritual journey. “So I’m not writing fiction right now,” he revealed, “but I do have a sense of what the next thing will be, which I had actually already started before I decided to do this instead. And it started as a short story and now will almost be a novel.”
I was curious how being Catholic factored into the challenges Beha faces as a writer. “I work at a mainstream magazine. I write for mainstream magazines. I also publish much of my work in the mainstream press,” he said. “I don’t think that atheist literary novelists have it any easier than Catholic ones. I do think there are things in my work that are important to me in what I’m doing, that get recognized in reviews by religious outlets, that don’t seem to get recognized in reviews by secular outlets. But that’s okay for me. I don’t feel like I’m misunderstood.” At the same time, he does feel that “there’s much in the culture at large that’s alienating”—a feeling he had even when he was not a practicing Catholic.
What advice would Beha offer to Catholic writers in 2022? “It’s tough,” he began. “I think truly my advice would be: Find a way to take pleasure and satisfaction in the doing of it. Because it is unlikely that the culture at large is going to give you external rewards for it. And the other thing is, even if they do give you external rewards for it, that’s not going to be worth how much work it is to do it well.”
“You have to do it because there’s something in you that feels a need to do it. And because the doing of it meets that need in some ways,” he continued. “And the nice thing is, if you do feel that way, then you’ll never quit, because, unlike a lot of other arts, it doesn’t take anything. You don’t need funding from a studio or supplies.”
Some artists, he noted, “embark on certain creative careers who get to their late 20s or then their late 30s or into their 40s, and they haven’t really succeeded yet. Then they’re faced with this existential choice: Do I give up on this or not?” Similarly, writing “is something you can keep doing all your life and get great satisfaction out of, and never ‘break through.’ And that’ll be okay. So, I think if you find that it signals that question once and for all, ‘Should I be doing this or not?’ Yeah—if you’re doing it for your own sake.”
Speaking with Beha about the need to understand the world and one’s faith—and how to write with that in mind—reminded me of what James Baldwin said in Life magazine in 1963: “An artist is sort of an emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell what it is like to be alive.” Perhaps the past 10 years have seen Christopher Beha, in both his writing and his return to Catholicism, trying to tell us what it is like to be alive; and both are parts of the project of his life.