Phil Klay and Paul Elie engage in conversation about faith, war, and human depth.


Faith, War, and Human Depth: A Conversation with Novelist Phil Klay

By: Siobhan Cooney

May 30, 2023

The latest installment of Georgetown’s Faith and Culture Series featured American writer Phil Klay, author of Missionaries (2020) and Uncertain Ground (2022), for an April 18 conversation moderated by Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie.

In introducing the event, Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University, recalled a previous lecture Klay gave at Loyola University Chicago that reflected both his character and body of work.

“Not only was it a thoughtful and engrossing talk about the way his Catholic faith shaped the contours of his literary imagination, but I was even more impressed with Phil’s ability to engage his audience with what I can only name as cura personalis [care of the person].”

This sentiment forecasted the evening’s discussion, as Klay explored the intricacies of faith, war, and human depth, particularly in the context of his novel Missionaries.

The Ongoing Nature of Modern War

The conceit of Klay’s work, especially Missionaries, is rooted in the idea that there has been an important change in the way we wage wars. Namely, modern war is ongoing and oftentimes hidden from the public eye.

Having served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, Klay experienced firsthand the “opaque” nature of modern warfare and continues to struggle with the lack of public transparency and political accountability. He described how the tactics and techniques of this new system include increased reliance on mercenaries, contractors, and special operations.

“When we’re talking about modern war, we’re talking about something that is part of an industrial-scale process,” said Klay, “and so moral culpability is complex and diffuse just naturally.”

While Klay affirmed that he is not a pacifist and not wholly opposed to every aspect of American warfighting, he does believe that having a deeper, intimate understanding of human nature is crucial for navigating this new era of warfare.

“I think that having a richer sense of what a human being is is just necessary for understanding what you’re doing when you’re waging war, what you’re doing when you’re killing people in targeted strikes. That’s essential for thinking it through on a moral level, on a spiritual level, on a political and military level.”

Missionaries and Narratives of Human Depth

As a result of this change in the nature of war, Klay says we need to tell the story differently. In the context of Missionaries, he sought to capture the professionalization of modern global war through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.

Klay then shared a passage from the first pages of the novel in which Abel, a Colombian child who ultimately gets pulled into the paramilitaries, grapples with notions of identity:

“A person is what happens when there is a family, and a town, a place where you are known. Where every person who knows you holds a small, invisible mirror, and in each mirror, held by family and friends and enemies, is a different reflection.”

Beginning a war novel with this kind of insight into humanity uncovers another layer of the globalization of violence found in modern warfare. According to Klay, one cannot begin to understand what violence is or what it is doing without first understanding what a person is.

“The reason why you can’t just kill somebody and only think about the consequences in terms of who that person was and what they were doing and what it is that you wanted to stop is because that person exists in a community.”

This globalization of violence has also led to the popularization of “special ops” and raid narratives in television, film, and literature. Rather than create highly dramatized spectacles in his own work, Klay never wants to write violence just for show value. Evil can be interesting, he said, but mostly when it’s complicated.

Embracing Mystery

After experiencing a range of life and death situations, contending with the efficiency of the American war mentality, and falling away from faith during deployment, it was the concept of mystery that brought Klay back to Catholicism and inspired him to write Missionaries.

Mysteries, as Klay defines them, are anything that involve human beings with any level of depth, as opposed to problems that deal with black and white binaries. Meaning is not something that is fixed and determined at any one point of time, but rather it changes and evolves. Klay noted how great art affects us in a similar way.

“It’s not giving you answers for your life, but rather you’re having this sort of intense, complex engagement with the work that you then respond to creatively at different points in your life.”

Klay explained that the point of mystery is not so much to oppose rationality or reject a policy that does or does not make sense. Instead, embracing mystery means embracing the things that cannot be reduced to answers.

“We live in a world that is always trying to find ways of actually pinning us down and categorizing us and limiting us in some ways. I think that the job of religion and the job of just us as human beings is to resist that and to find those places outside of a problem and more related to mystery.”

This event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Office of the President.

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