Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (16 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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Well, there is a certain measure of Orphic ambiguity in the utterances of Christ.

I wouldn't call it ambiguity. I see it as the wars of committees that are looking to fix what His behavior might have been—for their theological purposes, not his. So occasionally they were at odds. But each side of the disagreement was inflexible.


Did your mother talk much about her father?

She adored him, and he was a very kind man. One story I loved when I was a kid: She once said, “My mother worked so hard in the butcher shop, and we as children worked hard, too. We'd get angry at my father because whenever a poor woman would come in and he'd weigh the meat she bought, he'd put his finger under the scale so it cost her less. And we thought, That's all very well, but money is being taken away from us.”


He was obviously a compassionate man.

I was only four when he died. But I like to think so.


On Theodicy

Any venture that looks to deal with the philosophical problem of evil fits this category. And there are many. I will cite a number of theodicies, but there are so many I will move to the next so soon as you, from your point of view, have done your best to refute the premise.




God's ultimate purpose, some philosophers say, is to glorify Himself. He, by definition He alone, is infinitely entitled to do that without vanity. But He does allow evil to exist so we will appreciate His goodness all the more. It is analogous to the way that the blind man healed by Jesus appreciated sight more than those around him who had never experienced such a condition.

Let me take up first what I have never understood. Why is there this enormous desire in God to be glorified? Why is that so acceptable to so many branches of religion? We laugh at people who insist on being constantly glorified. We speak of neurotic movie stars or spoiled athletes, crazy generals and impossible authors, mad kings and greed-bag tycoons. One of the few things we all seem to agree on is that excessive vanity, once it has grown into a thing in itself, is dire. By that logic, a God-sized vanity is hard to comprehend. Where is the need for it?


Maybe we can change “glorified” to “loved.” God wants to be loved.

Why does God need to be loved? That's a large question. It may be true, but if God needs to be loved, then I think we are entitled to start posing a few questions. Is God's need to be loved so crucial because God, like us, is overextended? When, after all, do we have our greatest need to be appreciated? It is precisely when we are worn thin—precisely those times when our courage, our stamina, our determination, our belief that we possess worth are attenuated. At such times, we are more in need of love.


Are you saying that is where God is now?

It is the only justification I can comprehend for God needing so much adoration from us.


Moving to my second point, do you have any interest in the argument that He allows evil to exist in order to intensify our love for Him all the more?

I find that strange. I've always been bothered by the excessive love that God appears to demand—or, worse, that the churchmen who rule His places of worship insist upon. “Jesus needs your love, Jesus wants your love.” Well, Jesus is giving love, presumably. Does He need it in order to return it? What they're saying—without understanding, because they never follow anything to conclusion—but one of the elements in their thinking that repels most serious young people away from theology is that Fundamentalists, for example, seem to make a point of
contemplating the consequences of their thought. For if God does need a great deal of love, then why? Why? The question has to be asked. Doesn't it suggest that we dwell in a situation where God's fate depends upon our development as well—the good or evil world that we are developing?

Now, all we have to work with in these theological speculations is what we know from our own experiences. People who need love desperately are not often in good shape. If God created us in His or Her image, which I do believe, then God must also want us to understand some real portion of what is going on in His universe. It is to God's advantage, I would argue, for us to understand what God's desires might be. Unless, on the other hand, human history has been so vile and so awful, so permeated by the large and little triumphs of the Devil, that God has a legitimate fear of being betrayed by mankind so soon as humans obtain enough power. If that is so, exorbitant requests for love become even more disturbing.


Here is another theodicy: Evil is one of the means by which God can test humanity and see if we are worthy of His grace and His love. The evil and the suffering that come to us prove to be educational; they can make us better people. He is testing us, and the tests are good for us.

I find this offensive. Apply it to a parent and a child. We test the child—and in some situations we do test a child—but do we do it to see if the child deserves our love? Literature is rife with portraits of fathers and mothers of that detestable ilk.


Consider the second part: It is educational for the parents. It makes us better people. We do that with children—we do test them to improve them. We say, “Now that you've been through this, you're a better person for it.” We do that all the time to our children.

On the other hand, there is also large vanity in the assumption that God knows all about evil. Why not try to live with the notion that God is trying to discover what evil is about? What if evil is, at present, more bottomless than good? Isn't that a corollary of the notion that God is not All-Powerful? What, after all, is God's relation to Evil? Is He trying to discover more about it? May it be that God doesn't comprehend Evil that well, any more than parents are always quick to understand when children are sliding toward evil. Are parents always the first to know?


It was Dostoyevsky who said suffering is the sole origin of consciousness, that only through suffering could we improve our comprehension of the world around us a little more. Do you reject that?

I can agree that suffering is, yes, a mighty educator, but it is also an immensely expensive one. Some learn a great deal from it; all too many are reduced if not destroyed. Suffering can maim more spirit than it creates. Some learn best by suffering through small stages that enable one to shift one's uglier habits.


A form of suffering.

A modest form. If I want something, and I can't have it, I may be suffering like a child. Whereas Dostoyevsky was referring to suffering at a level so intense that one had to wonder whether one could go on. Was existence worthwhile? Suffering of that order can become too intense. Some people turn to suicide. And it can be true that a number do pass through such storms of the soul and return not emotionally crippled—indeed, have much to offer. But most have lost too much.


Let me offer another theodicy, the “now and then.” Evil and pain exist in this world, but only as a prelude to the afterlife. There, no pain will exist. So God offers a balance: much suffering, pain, and evil in this world, but in the other there will be none. The scales balance.

That is comparable to a man thinking, “I'm poor, but there will come a day when I am wealthy.” Of course, the poor man has nothing to offer concerning the way and the means by which he will become wealthy. He has nothing but his hankering. By the same token, any notion that we will live in peace and beauty afterward may be naught but our need for future promises. Are we looking for salesmanship? “You won't know what true happiness is until you buy this wonderful car. You'll thank me for having sold it to you.”

In the theodicies you've presented so far, there is always the assumption that God is in control of our fates from beginning to end. By my lights, theological misdirection rears up right at the commencement of the thesis. Anyone who looks even casually at the variety of incredible animals who have come down through evolution (and/or Intelligent Design) has to assume that God may have said to Himself at a certain point, “This little animal, this macaw, is going to be the best of its species.” Then, it turned out that it wasn't. So God moved on and made a better bird or made a better hedgehog or a better pig. Then, man came into it and began in his turn to alter the animals—and often, improve them (as we see every year on TV at the American Kennel Club). Yet at the moment you accept a darker notion of existence—that is, live with the assumption that there are hazards and perils added by the Devil, then God's effort becomes a contest where no one, human or divine, necessarily knows which side may win. Many might be ready to commit themselves to God in such a contest. But for contrast, look at how our sense of challenge is reduced if this is all happening to illuminate God's greater glory. All we have to do is remain patient and pass through our suffering—because a happy ending is guaranteed. No! I much prefer the assumption of the Greeks that tragedy lies next to happiness, and both compose the staples of our existence. We can live with the hope that it may all turn out well, but such hope will be empty unless we are also prepared to live with a tragic outcome. We need to have the bravery to proceed, but in no way are we entitled to proclaim that a wonderful heaven is waiting for all of us, and we need only keep our minds clean and, most preferably, theologically inert.


The fourth theodicy is one of Maya. Illusion. This is how some deal with the question of Evil. They say: What humans consider to be evil or suffering is either an illusion or it's unimportant. Events that are thought to be evil, such as death by natural disaster, are really not so. It could all be part of God's scheme. Eastern thought—Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism—takes this stance. They do not engage the problem of evil. You are mistaken, they would claim, if you think it is really there.

This argument could survive into the twentieth century. Then, the Holocaust shattered it. Shattered it
force majeure.
The particular facts were so odious that they dictated the need for a different approach.

Contemplate also gulags and the atom bomb. Excessive human suffering was intensified by at least one order of magnitude. In consequence, the notion that evil is illusion grows offensive. Of course, Maya assumes that all of the “outside world”—good, evil, and neutral—is illusion, wonderful, lovely outer events are as illusory as suffering. It's all Maya. But to repeat, I find that odious. I suggest that we at our maximum are more than the equal of any holy cow in any Hindu pasture. Indeed, the notion that all life is illusion is comforting to the ethos of the upper classes of India. They can salve their bad conscience at the sight of the hideous poverty around them. It's all illusion, they can tell themselves happily and most conveniently.

If you believe in karma, as I do—believe not only in rebirth but in subtle divine judgment (hopefully it is subtle) concerning the manner in which you will be reborn—another part of me remains sardonic and expects that God may have His or Her occasional problem operating the mechanics of reincarnation. If populations die at a steady rate with only a statistical spike here and there—a local earthquake, a terrible storm, a flood—God can receive and judge incoming souls. Forgive so crude a presentation of celestial mechanics, but it must serve for the moment. When reincarnation is flooded with a huge number of deaths that have no meaning—because they are abrupt, even near instantaneous, without warning, and provide no opportunity to die with grace and so leave the victims bereft of awareness at the moment of their death—obliged to die marooned altogether from any sense of why they now must die—then they enter reincarnation with less preparation within. The most sensitive mortal anticipations may have been lopped off. It is worth repeating. I would argue that a sudden, unexpected death is much worse than death that comes to one after a modicum of thought and fear and resolve and expectation. I believe there is a difference, and it may be profound.

So I think the Holocaust ravaged many human entrances into death. Reincarnation was flooded with near-to-nameless dead.


Was it so different from trench warfare in the First World War, where they were killing 150,000 people in a week? Surely, that equals the rate of people being exterminated in the Holocaust. By the time the First World War was over, something like thirty million people were gone.

I believe it's analogous but not identical. The deaths were, after all, taking place on both sides.


So every time this has happened, like at the Battle of Stalingrad, all of those—

When you go into a battle like Stalingrad, you are, at least, aware that you may die. What was diabolical about the Nazi camps is that they were most careful not to prepare people for death. It is worth repeating: They did not state, “We are going to gas you today.” On the contrary, they told the concentration-camp inmates that since they were lice ridden and filthy, they would receive showers, courtesy of the camp. So be so good as to undress. Those prisoners who were most obsessed with cleanliness trooped happily into the gas chambers. A minute later, they were dying with fire in their lungs and screaming, “You lied, you cheated me.” I am arguing that for a thousand people to die in a large room while experiencing one hideous instant of betrayal is to feel that God has betrayed them.

In contrast, the soldiers in Stalingrad knew there was a large chance they were going to perish. That, I would submit, offered less grievous problems to the powers of reincarnation than the gassings of the Holocaust. I repeat: It is so important to have a sense of why you are dying. I go so far as to believe that that can prepare you for your next existence.

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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