"I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear." -Roger Ebert, Life Itself
His mother prayed he'd become a priest, but he questioned the catechism of his Catholic school. Years later, encounters with Ingmar Bergman rekindled his childhood theological tussles, and he found a kinship with the great Swedish director's own wrestling with Christianity. Years later still, in and out of hospitals and treatments for thyroid cancer, his beloved wife Chaz held his hand and recited Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer to him.
Roger Ebert was explicit about his lack of religious commitment. In his 2011 memoir Life Itself, he comes clean: "No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am more content with questions than answers." In so doing, he inadvertently expressed just how much of a religious person he was. As the astute Catholic monk Thomas Merton once declared, "A man is known better by his questions than his answers," and indeed religious traditions themselves unfold in the oscillation between questions and answers, answers and questions. There is no great person of faith, be it Abraham or Moses, St Augustine or St John of the Cross, Jesus or Muhammad, who did not express doubt, did not ask a lot of questions.
Ebert's questioning revealed for him the human and ethical aspects of religious traditions, and he realized how Catholicism made him into a humanist before he even knew what humanism was. In an interview posted on Flavorwire in 2011 he stated, "I believe my social conscience and my liberalism were founded on the teachings of Jesus." Through it all he was as anxious about the absolutes of atheism as the certainty of the pious, suggesting, "Those who say that 'believer' and 'atheist' are concrete categories do violence to the mystery we must be humble enough to confess."
In this he was the best kind of writer about religious matters, the kind that rationally appreciated the need for the imagination and that imaginatively reconceived reasonable thinking. In film, he was attracted to mystics like Werner Herzog and the Catholic guilt of Martin Scorsese; in literary measures to the interrogative inquisitiveness of Studs Terkel.
It doesn't get much more religious than devoting one's life to the mythical, magical, larger-than-life characters on screen, all fleshed out in the lands Oz, Pandora, and Tatooine, medieval England, ancient Rome, and postmodern Los Angeles. In response to a question about what a film critic does, his great friend Gene Siskel responded that it was "covering the national dream beat." Ebert too knew that covering film was not simply to be relegated to the "entertainment" section, but to be tapped into the dreams and fears and desires of people.
His self-confidence enabled him to be the audience, to tell about a film from his own subjective point of view, to describe how the film affected him, not how it was supposed to have worked. (Lest we believe this a mandate to rush off and post more of our own blogs and comments on IMDB, recall that his subjective vision is not ours. Ebert's life centered around a theater seat, bringing him far further into movie-land than the rest of us might summon: He wrote over 300 reviews last year.) He knew how to write, which his Pulitzer makes obvious, but he knew too how to reflect on writing, to feel writing, to live it. Here was communion. Take. Read.
In a beautiful passage in Life Itself, he reflects on his inability to eat regular food after his cancer and failed operations made eating solid food impossible:
What's sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I'm alone, it doesn't involve dinner if it doesn't involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment's notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it's sad. Maybe that's why writing has become so important to me. You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now.
By writing and speaking clearly, compassionately, and striving for connection, he expressed the simple faith that I increasingly suspect a great many of us share. That the real struggles are not found in the conjured scuffles between theists vs. atheists, but about how to survive and love: a meal, another person, a movie.