A Q&A with Jay Parini
What does it mean, or what should it mean, to follow in the path of Jesus? It’s a question celebrated poet and biographer Jay Parini has pondered over. Despite having a profound love for God, Parini found himself always questioning, sometimes wavering, as he struggled to find a more philosophical understanding of faith. In his latest book, The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life, he gets at the answers to this question by writing a deeply personal guide to living a progressive Christian life. Part spiritual autobiography and part intellectual exploration, the heart of The Way of Jesus is his attempt to understand what Jesus really meant. We caught up with Parini to ask what inspired him to write the book, his relationship with faith and Scripture, and more.
Beacon Press: Why did you decide to write The Way of Jesus?
Jay Parini: I felt that I had not quite gone far enough into the details of my own Christian practice in Jesus: The Human Face of God. I wanted to dig deeper into the actual world of Christian worship and Christian thinking. I also wanted to organize my own thoughts on Christianity in ways that could prove helpful to others who are struggling with issues of faith. It’s also a teaching book. My own students know so little about Christian practice. I thought this book could introduce many to key ideas.
BP: How do you reconcile your skeptical nature with your love of faith and Scripture?
JP: Since reading in Paul Tillich in college that doubt was an essential part of faith, I’ve been attracted to exploring this idea. I don’t think my skeptical nature damages my faith but enhances it. I never imagined that God wished for us to use less of our intelligence. The more we know, the stronger our faith, especially if we don’t define faith as “belief” in any epistemological way. I’m not interested in a religion that insists I check certain belief boxes. That’s not faith. That’s the army.
BP: You write about overlap in the various faith traditions. How have those connections enhanced your faith practice?
JP: I could not be a Christian without a fairly basic understanding of Hindu and Buddhist ideas. The Hindu worldview underpins the Christian worldview. And so many Buddhist ideas help us to interpret Christian concepts, such as the idea in the Sermon on the Mount that what we keep is what we sow. This is a fundamental aspect of the notion of karma. Not the whole thing, but part of it.
BP: Your book is reminiscent of the long tradition of Christian intellectual writers. Which authors and philosophers have most contributed to your understanding of Christianity?
JP: My heroes as Christian intellectuals are Auden and C.S. Lewis. But I also love Graham Greene as a novelist, and knew him personally, as I knew Auden. My favorite academic philosopher is now Charles Taylor, in his mid-eighties, a Canadian Roman Catholic thinker. I’m also much taken with the work of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
BP: Is there a way that secular people and atheists can or should incorporate Christian values into their daily lives?
JP: Christian ideas help to inform daily life, and they don’t mean one has to “subscribe” to them wholesale or join anything. I think having a basic interest in and sympathy for Christianity can open up the mind and enhance daily life for anyone, including an atheist. This is a secular age, and I don’t imagine that this situation will change in the near future.
About Jay Parini
Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, biographer, and critic. His five books of poetry include Anthracite Country and House of Days. He has written eight novels, including Benjamin’s Crossing, The Apprentice Lover, The Passages of H.M., and The Last Station—the last was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. Parini has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and, most recently, Gore Vidal. His nonfiction works include Jesus: The Human Face of God, Why Poetry Matters, and Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. Visit his website.