Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (3 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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Let me try to engage these unverifiable concepts. Does this tie in to God's need for humans to be soldiers in His future cosmic war? Is it an operation run altogether by God? Are all souls recycled? Are new ones created?

Let me work through your questions one by one. First, I would assume that God has ultimate hegemony. I am sure there are any number of monitoring angels. It's a bureaucracy, if you will. We don't have to be precise about it. Where did our human bureaucracy come from? I feel many of our social forms derive from celestial forms. In other words, bureaucracies could be human representations of the notion of how it might work—and not work—in the heavens. We can't stand bureaucracy because of the boredom, repetition, and slowness. But it may be that there are also elements in Heaven that do not work with high efficiency even when there are angels at the switchboard rather than humans.


You did remark that not all souls are recycled.

I believe the soul is a gift from God. Of course, you can abuse any living gift. Any number of people may end by saying, “All I want is a little peace. Let me sleep forever.” They may be given just that.


So such a termination is not necessarily a function of evil….

Not necessarily of evil—but it is giving up. If the complications of life and the exhaustion of contending with all the little gods and devils in yourself burn you out, there can come a point where the soul loses its desire to exist. You see, reincarnation is a gamble. You could do worse the next time. Fear of an even more painful existence may convince you to throw in your hand. Or God could so decide for you. On the other hand, I think there are humans who choose to commit physical suicide because they feel that if they don't their souls will die before their bodies. Gary Gilmore was a perfect example. Why did he so desire to be executed? Because he expected his soul would expire in prison, and he was a great believer in the value of his own ongoing soul.


You are saying that a soul doesn't necessarily go to Heaven or to Hell—it just ceases to exist.

Yes. It's gone. It's in a true cemetery.


Are new souls being created?

I don't talk much to people who believe in reincarnation because I don't like the jargon. But, yes, people who believe in reincarnation do speak of new souls or “young souls”—and, yes, I would expect God creates new spiritual lives. God may say, “I've been reconsidering the terrible propensities of the Devil. Let us see if we can conceive of a soul who will be able to war with the Devil a little more effectively, a new soul who will have many of the qualities of the Devil but can transmute them, transform them, elevate our sense of spirit even in the dirtiest, ugliest, foulest places. We can call on Dostoyevsky at this point. God may have decided that an iota of goodness in an evil soul can be immensely important.


You hardly speak of the casualties in this war between God and the Devil.

While the soul is presumably a separate being from the body, I would suppose that the soul also has its period of existence. A particular soul might expire after a single earthly existence, another could be reincarnated a number of times, but doubtless there's a limit. Yes, souls do expire, I must suppose. Just as God may finally expire, or the Devil, indeed. There are forces out there who wouldn't mind seeing the collapse of one, the other, or both. We may be speaking of a force that consists of the drive to nothingness. Nothingness may be a huge power out in the great cosmic universe. It may desire the extinction of the universe. To repeat: We have yet to explain black holes in space. What in the nature of things accounts for that exceptional megaconcentration of gravitational forces that pulls all nearby matter into it?


You've always said you are on the side of being.

Yes, but it's like saying, “I'm a Yale man,” or “Loyal to Harvard.” The built-in pitfall of these conversations is how to keep from sounding sententious at one end and hollow at the other. Theological remarks tend to be pious and/or presumptuous. Nevertheless, I take this route because I am weary of the philosophical paradoxes and evasions that good Christians tie themselves up in, those mutually exclusive conundrums. “God's ways are mysterious” can be a cop-out. Resolutely, they evade any reply that can explore down to the root. The set of beliefs offered here makes sense at least to me. And I would add: Having a view of the universe that makes sense to oneself is, I think, Jung's finest prescription for mental health. One of his conclusions was that nobody could be cured of their neurosis until they found their own vision of God. That may be a profound, even a fabulous idea. I believed it before I could articulate it, so I was naturally excited when I came across that set of remarks in his work.


Many people who believe in reincarnation would say they have retained some sense of their previous life. You've always said that you don't remember.

My feeling is there's a very good reason why not—I believe there's a psychic wall within us that shuts off recollections of any previous existence. Think what your life would be if you knew about three or four previous spent and misspent lives. My memory is already failing for the one life I'm aware of. How could I handle the confusion of other existences that were also mine? I do think, however, that we retain deep instincts about previous incarnations. Sometimes we have reactions to events that are inexplicable. Something inside says, “Don't take another step in this direction.” Or “I will pursue this course even if it makes no sense to me whatsoever.” Some people are maniacs on motorcycles—what do they get from it? Something not ordinary. Partly from this life—they're curing hostilities, aggressions, and rages they can only solve on a motorcycle that is going fast on a wet road. But maybe it also derives from a previous life when they were terrified of any commitment to danger. Perhaps the soul is now turning over the soil of previous arid endeavors.


So many people who believe in reincarnation have self-aggrandizing memories of the past—“Oh, I was in Cleopatra's court.”

I can't bear that.


It kind of put me off reincarnation.

Yes, that particular vanity is atrocious. It's unpleasant in the same manner that people who are devout Christians believe they're going to Heaven because they're steadfast in their belief. Either way, it is self-aggrandizement.


At the end of
Ancient Evenings,
which I've been rereading over the last few days, Meni the Second, the young Meni, says, “Purity and goodness are less to Osiris than strength,” which is a restatement of what Cherry says in
An American Dream:
“God is weaker because I didn't turn out well.” Add to that Rojack's belief that “God was not love but courage. Love came only as a reward.” You return to this idea many times in your books—especially in
Harlot's Ghost.
I can see the force of this idea, but couldn't it be argued that love can create strength just as courage generates love?

Yes, it can be argued. It is still a question, however. Does love have as powerful and vital an effect as courage? There are any number of men and women who are full of love but are nonetheless timid and cowardly and hate themselves for being cowardly—it poisons the love in them, even if, essentially, they are loving creatures.


In Christian belief, love can move mountains. But for you, love seems to be more of a passive quality, not active like courage—love comes as a “reward”—so it isn't seen as an active principle. It's the emolument you get for being courageous.

Let me tell you how I got to that point. It struck me that everyone I knew, including myself, was always looking for love. “Ah, if I could find love, it would solve my problems.” Some years ago, however, I found myself saying to my children, “Don't go searching for love. Love is not a solution but a reward.” So long as you go searching for love directly, you will fail. Because love is a grace, and you don't pursue grace. Now, mind you, I'm not a macho maniac on courage. More than once I've said that an old lady who crosses a busy street in terror, feeling she hardly has a fifty-fifty chance of making it safely across, is exhibiting courage that might be more intense than that of a professional soldier attacking a machinegun nest, if through all his young manhood he's been ready to die in such an action. Odds are that such a soldier is braver even on balance than the average old lady, but we can't set up a hierarchy concerning courage.

Still, my own experience tells me that to the degree one is brave, one finds more love than when one is cowardly.


But I'm not talking about romantic love, rather about what Christianity calls “charity.”

Charity comes when you're brave. How many cowards are full of charity? Cowardice is a poison.


It's a question of precedence. You always put courage as the more active, the more powerful—

I often find when I'm feeling weak that I'm also very nice, and when I'm weak I feel the weakness in others and am sympathetic to it. But it's not nourishing. It can be just another form of emptiness traveling back and forth. Whereas when I'm feeling strong and also feel compassion or charity—on those rare occasions—there's real goodness present. It's of real use to the other person.


Well, to get down to basic ethics: When someone does something that's an act of real generosity done at a cost to themselves, it's because they love the other person. I don't mean in a romantic or sexual way.

I'm not putting that down, but I'm not ready to elevate it—because as a novelist, I know better. Forgive me for putting it this way, but most often when you have an act of great generosity, there's a tangled skein behind it of good and bad motive—not to ignore the possible presence of God and the Devil. Contemplate the compromises, relations, treaties, surprises, and rebellions within any large personal act. People are also perfectly capable of rebelling against both God and the Devil, shutting them both out of one's existence as far as possible. There is the human ego—the notion that neither God nor the Devil knows what He now wants of me as well as I know it. So I do call it a tripartite relationship, and by that I certainly don't mean that humans are subservient in it. What terrifies me at times is that humans may become dominant over the other two. I just don't trust us to go traveling across the universe on our own.


You mean there may have been some individuals in history who were so powerful at a certain moment in time, they equaled God and the Devil? Churchill, Napoleon—

—Napoleon, yeah. I think certain humans can free themselves to the point where both God and the Devil are working for them for a brief period. But, please, take us back again to speculations I feel closer to.


You've eliminated Heaven and Hell from the Four Last Things.

As absolutes. But Hell can be very real—take some proud society lady who is unpleasant to her servants. She is all caught up in money and her jewels—we all know people like that. She's willing to sell herself to the Devil, but even the Devil rejects her because, at bottom, she's a silly ass. He doesn't need her. So there she is, ready for judgment, and God's judgment is: “You'll be a scrubwoman in your next existence. And if you complain once, you'll clean latrines—provided you still have any soul left.”

Most conservatives believe that the poor man has as good a chance or better of getting to Heaven as the rich man because the temptations among the rich are so awful that they can easily go to Hell. And that's what enables conservatives to function. They can put up with inequity for others in this life because they feel there's a better existence waiting for those poor who are patient and good in horrible circumstances.

Well, I believe there's an element of truth in that, just as there's an element of truth in the implicit liberal faith that every soul, every human, is terribly important and must be protected in this life. These are not only warring notions but may be warring notions within God. Because where is the artist who does not have such profound disputes within? The Creation may have come out of these warring notions in the Creator.

It isn't that God is only fighting the Devil. He's also debating within Himself or Herself what the next proper course might be. I wish to suggest that it is in experiencing the play of this complexity that future theology could find its nourishment rather than in the churchly insistence that God's final intentions are all in the Book. No, I do not see the laws of existence as etched in stone, with no deviation permitted. No absolute Heaven or absolute Hell. Such concepts are devilish ways to confuse ourselves thoroughly, because they don't add up. In terms of our experience, they don't make much sense. Our experience is that everything in life is more or less shaded. On certain days, certain things are better; certain of our acts give us more pleasure than on others.

Sometimes evil acts—what we see as evil acts if we believe in Revelation—give us pleasure that we find ungodly, devilish. Yet acts that we think are evil may have been inspired by God, who decides, “This poor wretch is going to expire unless there's a breakout. This poor soul has to do something unpleasant before it can feel any life again.” In this sense, God's compassion can also be present in an ugly or even an evil act.

Never forget Frederick Engels's immortal three words: “Quantity changes quality.” Petty evil is one thing. Massive evil is another. I'd never use an argument like this to arrive at a justification of Hitler or Stalin. They embodied massive evil.

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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