This I Believe

Stegner, Wallace

  • Wallace Stegner describes his suspicions of "passionate faith" because of the religious intolerance it creates, and recounts his beliefs in virtues such as kindness and courage, and his belief that although consciences are developed differently, based on one's birthplace, nevertheless, people across the world share many values.
This object is in collection Subject Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
view transcript only

And now, This I Believe, the living philosophies of thoughtful men and women, presented in the hope they may strengthen your beliefs so that your life may be richer, fuller, happier. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Wallace Stegner was born on an Iowa farm, but in his youth roamed with his wandering family all over the American West and up into Saskatchewan. Somewhere along the way, he developed the urge to write, and the result has been over a half dozen novels, the best known of which is Big Rock Candy Mountain. He has won a prodigious number of awards for his writing, and he is at present on a Guggenheim Fellowship. This is Wallace Stegner's creed.
It is terribly difficult to say honestly, without posing or faking what one truly and fundamentally believes. Reticence or
an itch to make public confession may distort or dramatize what is really there to be said, and public expressions of belief are so closely associated with inspirational activity, and in fact so often stem from someone's desire to buck up the downhearted and raise the general morale, that belief becomes an evangelical matter. In all honesty, what I believe is neither inspirational nor evangelical. Passionate faith I am suspicious of, because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and generally I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than with the sectarians who hang and burn them. I fear immoderate zeal--Christian, Muslim, Communist, or whatever--because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand. I cannot say that I am even a sound Christian, though the code of conduct to which I subscribe was preached more eloquently by Jesus Christ than by any other.
About God I simply do not know; I don't think I can know.
However far I may have missed achieving it, I know that moderation is one of the virtues I most believe in. But I believe as well in a whole catalog of Christian and classical virtues: in kindness and generosity, in steadfastness and courage, and much else. I believe further that good depends not on things, but on the use we make of things. Everything potent, from human love to atomic energy, is dangerous. It produces ill about as readily as good. It becomes good only through the control, the discipline, the wisdom with which we use it. Much of this control is social, the thing which laws and institutions in uniforms enforce, but much of it must be personal and I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do. Our reward for self control and the acceptance of private responsibility is not necessarily money or power.
Self respect and the respect of others are quite enough.
All this is to say that I believe in conscience, not as something implanted by divine act, but as something learned from infancy from the tradition in society which has bred us. The outward forms of virtue will vary greatly from nation to nation. A Chinese scholar of the old school, or an Indian raised on the Vedas in the Bhagavad Gita, has a conscience that will differ from mine. But in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and the Indian know as well as I do what is 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.
Man is a great enough creature, and a great enough enigma, to deserve both our pride and our compassion, and engage our fullest sense of mystery. I shall certainly never do as much with my life as I want to, and I shall sometimes fail miserably to live up to my conscience, whose word I do not distrust even when I can't obey it. But 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 than most of the world's millions, I am also born more obligated.
There the beliefs of Wallace Stegner, who, in addition to his own writing, directs the creative writing program at Stanford University. He lives in Los Altos, California.