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Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

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BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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The whole problem of evil—Voltaire heard about the earthquakes in Lisbon in 1755 and said the destruction proved there was no God. Throughout our history, humans have questioned God whenever there was a disaster—of course, many of these were natural disasters. That was bad enough. But, of course, why would God allow a natural disaster? You can't blame any of that on humans. That was Voltaire's point. At least we can blame the Holocaust on human evil or the Devil—in part, at least. We can't blame an earthquake in Lisbon in which one hundred thousand people were killed—we can't blame that on human beings.



So that forced many philosophical thinkers of the Enlightenment into declaring, “That's it. God can't possibly exist.” But if you take a step back, you can say, Maybe we're looking at too small a scale. Yes, in the concentration camps, eleven million people were exterminated with untold suffering. The suffering was so great it's impossible for us to conceive of it. To anyone who's ever looked at the photographs or read the accounts, it's horrifying to an extreme degree. But maybe, in the larger scheme of things, God was allowing this to happen to send a message to humanity on how far we have slipped, and He was even willing to sacrifice his Chosen People, or a great number of them, in order to send a message to humanity that it was time to embrace love, compassion, justice, whatever had to be done. Strong medicine, I'm saying. More and more—the earthquake in Lisbon doesn't do it, okay, we'll have trench warfare. And then we'll have gulags, the Holocaust, then the threat of the atomic bomb. And indeed, the atomic bomb was dropped, but after all we have not had a nuclear holocaust—we backed away. Maybe we've learned, and we've backed away from the brink of a nuclear disaster and spared the world.

I think we have. It's possible that even the Devil was appalled by the bombs. Nuclear warfare could destroy all of his technology.


So maybe it worked.

Let's go back to the earthquake in Lisbon. Let me give you my notion of God as the Artist—that is, a God limited in power. For example, why are there volcanoes? I would answer: because God is not a perfect engineer. That makes as much sense to me as God punishing us and punishing us with dubious compensatory result. It's very hard to argue that these acts of nature engender more than a passing shiver of religiosity in most people.


God, the Devil, and Humankind

Are you ready to talk about the Devil?


My notion of the Devil depends to a good degree on Milton. I think he fashioned a wonderful approximation to what the likelihood might be. In one way or another, there was a profound argument between God and some very high angels—or between God and gods—and the result was finally that one god won, the God we speak of as our Creator. God won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, because Lucifer, if you will, also became well installed. And this war has gone on ever since, gone on in us.

Whatever the form this takes, my understanding is that God and the Devil are often present in our actions. As I've said many times over the years, when we work with great energy it's because our best motive and our worst motive—or to put it another way, God and the Devil—are equally engaged in the outcome and so, for a period, working within us. There can be collaboration between opposites, as well as war. This collaboration can consist of certain agreements—“The rules of war will be….” And of course, the rules can be broken. The Devil can betray God. Once in a while, God also breaks the rules—with a miracle. But my argument is that when we act with great energy, it is because God and the Devil have the same interest in the outcome. (Their differences will be settled later.) Whereas when we work with little energy, it's because They are not only at odds but are countermanding each other's impact upon us.


What if God happens to be dominating us? Wouldn't that be better? Couldn't we argue that it would be better to have God motivating us more than the Devil? Many heroes in history have been so motivated and have gone on to achieve great things. Like Constantine—“in this sign, conquer
, in hoc signo, vinces!”—
and goes on to—

Claim, if you wish, that Constantine was a mighty king who helped Christianity to triumph—indeed, he did. You could also say he may have helped to destroy something more fertile than Christianity, which was the richness of pagan belief. Our latter-day troubles might have started in the instant that Constantine decided to become a Christian.


Let me put it this way: If schizophrenia is on the rise—I don't know that it is—but if it is on the rise in human affairs—

—I'd be surprised if it weren't.


All right, would that be an indication that this suggested collaboration between God and the Devil is not working well?

Let's not emphasize “collaboration.” I've spoken of it as “the accepted rules of the game.” Take an average contest in professional football. Two teams fight each other on the field with skill and bestiality, each side laboring to win. Nonetheless, a whole set of laws also prevails. After they tackle a guy, they don't kick him in the head. I'm saying that in order to keep it flowing, God and the Devil have certain understandings with each other. What they are, I couldn't begin to say. We don't often come close to the nature of divine mysteries, but sometimes we can obtain some sense of which relations are involved. The only clue I have is that when there is great energy available to us—then I do expect They are in a temporary collaboration.

But generally speaking, we are mired in good and evil—mired because we spend most of our time in trade-offs and in the exhaustion of our efforts. One part of us wants to do something to which the other part is opposed.

Very often within us, good fights an offensive battle against evil. We know that. The Christian churches are built on that: Fight the evil in your soul.


Saint Michael the Archangel.

Yes. But my argument is that it has become a contest among three protagonists. It isn't that we are passive onlookers while God and the Devil wage a war within us. We are the third force and don't always know which side we are on in any given moment, or whether on another occasion we are independent of both.

If you'll accept my notion that technology may be the most advanced, extreme, and brilliant creation of the Devil—for technology, of course, does incredible things—then you get a real sense of why some people would be more leagued with the Devil than devoted to God. Half the human universe must by now be on the side of technology.


Let me push your idea a little further. You are saying that when you have the most energy, when you're moving forward, it is because your good and your bad motives are in sync—wouldn't that argue, then, that when everyone felt like that more and more, and we had this great sense of energy, that we're moving forward, accomplishing positive results, happiness results—

—war also results. It's not simple. Powerful energies can arouse opposition. USA versus USSR. I would also say that it is ennobling to face existence with the recognition that you are not going to have clear answers. At best, you can arrive at hypotheses that you can test—most imperfectly—by the ongoing experiences of your life.


The Manichaeans did see God and the Devil as brothers who fight until the end of time, but at the end good will defeat evil. Is that where you depart from the Manichaeans?

Absolutely. We don't know the end—we could end with the failure of the good. Because if the good is guaranteed to win at the end, then we are engaged in a wrestling match, a fixed one. If goodness is assured an ultimate victory over evil, we are in a comedy, and I must say it is an ugly farce, considering how we suffer in the course of the contest.

Go back to football—no football team ever assumes it is written they will win a big game. A victory brings the joy that it was
predetermined in advance—it was achieved. I'm saying existence consists of a continuing set of achievements and defeats.


Forever and ever?

No, but certainly up to the point where humankind enters into some definitive metamorphosis of existence, arriving perhaps at the notion that God is not the most powerful deity in the universe—but can succeed, nonetheless, in promulgating His vision into other worlds and other gods. It may be that our vision can join eventually with God's vision. Perhaps our mission is to travel out across the stars—not necessarily in spaceships but by our spirits ready to seek to make a better universe. But, of course, we can certainly fail. Who knows what other forces are out there in the galaxies? Dare I mention black holes in space? But enough! I don't want to stray too far from the speculations already presented.


Let me take up the “Four Last Things” of Christian eschatology: death, judgment, Heaven, Hell. You have commented, at least obliquely, on all but one, Heaven. Why have you given Heaven such short shrift?

Because I don't believe in it.


Without a vision of Heaven, your belief system is unlikely to draw many adherents.

I'm not trying to found a religion. I think if these ideas of mine have any value, a great deal of time will go by before there are any adherents. First of all, however, I believe that our childlike notion of Heaven has to be relinquished.


But not Hell?

I don't believe in absolute Hell any more than I believe in Heaven, certainly not in Hell as a place of eternal punishment. It strikes me as prodigiously wasteful.


You set the play you made out of your novel
The Deer Park
in Hell. Hell is something you refer to all the time. It's a constant reference. But Heaven is absent.

It was perfectly legitimate, I felt, to put my characters in Hell because Hell is a point of reference for everyone. Everyone believes in Hell—and much more readily than we do in Heaven. Heaven is harder to conceive of. What we all know is that the most perfect moments in our lives don't last for long. Extraordinary moments are perishable. Whereas we can be in Hell for months, even years; we can live in towering depression. Hell, therefore, is much more available to human beings as a set of stages. It was easy for me to situate the play of
The Deer Park
in Hell. It gave a foundation to the drama.

Yet I still don't believe in Hell as eternal punishment. Rather, Hell has dimensions. Some parts of it are critically worse than others. We can approach that when we talk about reincarnation. My notion remains that the only Heaven and Hell we ever receive—the only judgment that comes to us—is by way of reincarnation. To wit, as a reward we can be given a better possibility in our next life. Or we can be born into a worse one, if that is what we deserve.

In other words, I'm not interested in absolute moral judgments, eternal Heaven, eternal Hell—to the contrary. Just think of what it means to be a good man or a bad one. What, after all, is the measure of difference? The good guy may be 65 percent good and 35 percent bad—that's a
good guy. The average decent fellow might be 54 percent good, 46 percent bad—and the average mean spirit is the reverse. So say I'm 60 percent bad and 40 percent good—for that, must I suffer eternal punishment?

The argument I would advance is that Heaven and Hell make no sense if the majority of humans are a complex mixture of good and evil. There's no reason to receive a reward if you're 57/43—why sit around forever in an elevated version of Club Med? That's almost impossible to contemplate. You remember the fun George Bernard Shaw had with his expectation of Heaven as a prodigiously boring place where Don Juan nonetheless wished to reside because at least you could think there? That was the best Shaw could come up with as a concept for Heaven—at least you can think well and carefully.

Now, there are Catholic theologians, including my good friend Eugene Kennedy, who write of the upper reaches of Heaven, where the best of humans refine their souls as they come to comprehend more and more of the majesty and exceptional subtlety of the Godhead. It is beautifully stated, but to my critical spirit does not answer one fundamental question, to wit: What is the end of such illumination? Its sole purpose still seems to offer no more than a further understanding of the love of God and the great importance that we love Him more and more.

There is no suggestion that the Lord might have greater needs than His or Her own glorification. The point to all my suppositions is that God still has an unfulfilled vision and wishes to do more. So I would suppose that we receive instead a partial reward or partial punishment and it is meted out to us in our reincarnation. How better to account for the ongoing feeling of conscience that we all seem to have? Conscience is there for good cause; conscience is vital—if, for nothing else, it's there because it gives us a clue to what is likely to be our next future. Will we be reborn in a situation that offers more opportunities? Or, for punishment, will there be fewer good chances? Will our next life be easier or more painful?

Now, this notion is simple, but people who are fixed entirely on notions of eternal Hell and eternal Heaven can't come near to it. They cannot comprehend what I'm talking about. Yet for those who are wondering if there is a viable scheme to the afterlife, these assumptions can become meaningful. Why do I strive to become a better person? Can it be because I wish to have a somewhat better life the next time out? If I am going to be reborn, I want to be able to do more in my next incarnation than with this last one.

I have a joke to tell at this point: I die and go up before the Monitoring Angel. He says, “Oh, Mr. Mailer, we're so glad to see you. We've been waiting. Now, tell us—we ask everyone this—what would be your idea of a proper reincarnation for yourself? What would you like to be in your next life?”

I say, “Well, you know, everything considered, I think I'd like to be a black athlete. I won't argue with where you position me at birth—it can be under poor, ugly circumstances, I'm willing to take that on—but I would like to be a black athlete.”

The Monitor's face clouds up. “Oh, Mr. Mailer,” he says, “everyone these days wants to be a black athlete. Right now, we're dreadfully oversubscribed. So let me see where you have been put.” He looks it up. He says, “I'm afraid we've got you down for cockroach. But—here is the good news—you'll be the fastest cockroach on the block!”

All right—we are going to be reincarnated. Whether we know what our reincarnation will be, I doubt. I expect it will be full of surprises, most unforeseen. Some, given our vanity, are likely to seem outrageously warped.


Whenever you've spoken of reincarnation, you've done so in an ironic manner. You talk about directives in the Bureau of Karmic Reassignment. But I don't recall your ever talking about the likelihood of the reassignments. In your mind, how does reincarnation work? Who controls the process?

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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