Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (4 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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Considering your belief in various states of grace and the idea of dying in a state of grace, it seems to me that if there's any pathway to formal religion open in your mind, it's to Catholicism.

I probably do feel more connection to elements of Catholicism than to any of the other formal religions. But that's as far as it goes. I was talking once with a Catholic theologian who said, “Well, so much of what you say seems Catholic.”

I said, “Yes, but I could never be a Catholic.”

He asked, “Why? Would it be the transubstantiation in the Mass?”

I said, “No. I could believe that. Why can't God be present in a wafer? That would not bother me. Why can't wine become the blood of Christ? I wouldn't believe it in a hurry, but that wouldn't keep me from becoming a Catholic.”

So we went through various hurdles and obstacles, and finally he asked again, “Why, then, can't you be a Catholic?”

“Because,” I said, “I don't believe in the omnipotence of God.”

And he said, “In that case, I can understand why you're not a Catholic.”


All right. Let's return one more time to reincarnation. I feel that you have more to say on that.

Yes. One matter we've not gotten into is my supposition that the atom bomb, the concentration camps, and the gulags were mighty efforts by the Devil to foul up reincarnation, to choke off the subtlety of the divine judgment within reincarnation. I hope I've suggested the delicate dispositions of God, the care with which the question is asked: “What shall I do with this soul?” That is at the core of reincarnation—delicate, responsible, artful,
judgment. If the process is overloaded, it can break down.


So mass slaughter fouls up the divine bureaucracy?

Contemplate the mess in eternity when so many human creatures were being slaughtered at once and en masse.


Not if you can go back to an omnipotent God. Most people believe God can handle anything and everything

No, God's energies are also limited. Everything I say is based on such a premise. We may live in a universe that is expanding, but there is not always endless energy available. No. No.


Are you saying that the Devil does have a purchase on the process of reincarnation?

Through marring it, mainly. Or overloading it.


It was Herman Melville who said—in a line I could never forget—when he was, if I recall, writing
He said, “Lord, when shall we stop growing?” In your theological belief, there's a paradox, to me at least, in that on the one hand, growth is something you're always seeking, and it is the summum bonum—

Not all growth is good.


But good growth is good, positive growth; growth of some kind is better than stasis.

Good growth is good; bad growth is bad. The growth of suburban shopping malls has been prodigious in America—does that mean it's good? Does it mean that, because the old family store gave way to the corporate chain, the family store was inferior? Not necessarily. Not humanly.


Let me ask you about evolution. You accept evolution. You know, the traditional Catholic belief here—the Catholics were quick to embrace evolution even as many Protestants, at least Fundamentalist Protestants, were not. The Catholics were among the earliest to embrace the notion of evolution, and they didn't have any trouble with it. They said, People coming from monkeys—no trouble at all, that's how the body was created. And at a certain point, God put the soul in. Is that…

I happen to believe that dogs have souls.



Mind you, in reincarnation, you may not come back as a human. You could come back as a dog, and, I will say in parentheses, that makes a great deal of sense to me, because so many dogs, I find, are closer to the human than humans.


Stretch evolution back—people from monkeys or dogs is no trouble at all. That's just three million years. But going back—fifty, sixty, one hundred million years—when the creatures were coming out of the slime, do you see that at a certain point God

I don't think it's answerable—even as speculation.


Well, what doesn't have a soul?

It makes more sense for me to believe that God was in the slime from the beginning, and God was less in those days. God has grown with us. God has grown with evolution.


Well, God created the world—

God may have been developing along with evolution. Why must a god be independent of time?


Well, if God created the world at that point, He wasn't slime.

Wait: We create our children. That doesn't mean one is able to create children on the day one is born. I'm not talking about an omnipotent, All-Powerful God but one who grows with us.


I'm assuming that in the course of human history, God at some point began the process of creating souls.

These souls also developed. The soul of an amoeba would be primitive but still a soul that gave the amoeba some intimation of direction, some sense that it must do its best under its own limited circumstances. God, doubtless, was superior to the amoeba from the beginning, but God was also developing even as the Creation went from the amoeba to the paramecium to the multicelled creature.


Here's where I have a problem with your notion of reincarnation—when did God create such a process?

It may have occurred only after God endowed a great many higher animals and humans with souls. He may then have decided, “I, as an artist, can improve on this Creation. Some could have turned out better if they had not lived their lives under grievous circumstances. Give them, therefore, another opportunity to exercise their free will. Maybe they will be wiser.” It comes down to something basic. God's notion: Let's make the Creation better. The Devil's: Let's maim the Creation. I have, says the Devil, something in mind that will supplant and replace it.


What would the Devil want? Total destruction? Nihilism?

For the sake of argument, let's say the Devil would want to fashion a universe on His or Her terms.


Have we any idea what those terms would be?

I suppose it could be an immensely technological universe where the need for existence—individual existence—and the concomitant need for soul would be less. That might be more to the Devil's taste: individual units functioning in relation to other individual units. Less spiritual. More mechanized. That seems to be the prevailing tendency in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—more and more interchangeable units, ready to serve a corporate machine. At the other end of it, you have the maniacal intensity of the most extreme Muslims, whose only feeling is that there's something so wrong with this approach that it all has to be destroyed, and don't ask questions. Once again, we are at a point in history between the rock and the hard place.


Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell

I want to ask a question about Purgatory. Do you feel some sympathy for that idea?


Some—and a fair portion of uneasiness. I will say that I expect there may be some sizable difficulties present after death, a universal Hell, perhaps, of waiting that we may all have to go through before we are born again—those of us who will be born again. I will add that there's an automatic assumption in most people who are religious that God is not only All-Powerful but instantaneous in His action. There's an Irish saying: “When God made time, He made a lot of it.” So God
be instantaneous—but why would He want to be? Nevertheless, this expectation of quick reception and quick designation for one's afterlife is at odds with our own experience—which is that everything takes longer than we think it will. That is the accrued wisdom of most men and women after many decades of life. In the economy of human experience, there are always time-consuming episodes you didn't anticipate. To assume that once you pass into another realm of existence things will be faster and more responsive—that is no small assumption. It's as ungrounded as to expect that there are no destinations in the Hereafter other than Purgatory, Limbo, or Hell. Another, after all, might be God's need to judge whether a particular soul should be reborn or might as well expire. So Purgatory might sit there as a set of possibilities with many unhappy holding tanks. God may look at three quarters of us, say, “I don't want to make up my mind just yet,” and drop us into slow Purgatory, so to speak.

Now, what the form of this Purgatory might be—whether it bears resemblance to a Palestinian refugee camp—I have no idea. One of the beliefs I hold is that the Hereafter is less different than we assume. We may have the same frustrations and difficulties in the afterlife—overcrowding, for example, or even, conceivably, waste. After the Holocaust, we were forced to recognize there was something absolutely murderous in our species—obviously, it was not just reserved for the Germans; there was something vastly destructive in our nature. We received this knowledge over and over again, in Russia, in China, in Africa, in some of our own actions—indeed, in Vietnam. The point I want to make is that the Holocaust may have exacted a great price from God, even greater than from us. At the core of karma is the notion that it is composed of wise judgment. What if that is not always true? In the godly assessment of each life—in the reading of the soul, so to speak, that takes place after one dies—can it be that God sometimes says, “I'm too weary to think about this now”? After all, if God is an artist, is it always necessary to make instantaneous judgments? Under certain conditions of overcrowding, literal overcrowding in eternity of the sort caused by the Holocaust or Hiroshima, Purgatory can become a vast way station.

Let me try to expatiate on that. Given the number of people exterminated in a day during the Holocaust, the number of souls arriving in tumult, is it possible they became too great in number for God to measure with calm and justice? It may be that karma has been in a species of uproar ever since the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the gulags.

The moment you postulate that God is striving to promulgate His vision across the stars, you are also postulating that the nature of the Beyond—to use another word than the Hereafter—is existential. Not fixed, but changing with cosmic circumstances.


Well, you have certainly touched on my next question. You see God as an artist. I think all too often your visions of the Hereafter or the Beyond are built on your own experience of this life. Couldn't God just as well be an engineer?



Or a general?



A public administrator? Or a diplomat?

Yes, yes.


Those are all human occupations.

How can God not be all those things? God is certainly an engineer. An engineer would see it all in terms of future construction. How do you organize the Hereafter? How do you arrive at the best levels of spiritual sanitation? Yes! Heavenly comfort stations for psychic waste are not necessarily to be taken for granted. When I speak of God as an artist, I don't pretend to mean that God might be a novelist, as if that is all God is up to. Finally, the word “artist” has hegemony over other professions because whatever else, it is creative. God is a creator. A Creator. I don't like the prefix “mega”—it's been used too often—but God is, all right, at the least, a mega-artist. All the faculties of engineering, war, social building, art, music, sport, painting, science, philosophy, medicine, herbology are His or Hers, and at a level more highly developed than we can begin to conceive. But God is still an artist. A great engineer is an artist. So is a great general like Clausewitz or Robert E. Lee. So are the best in all human categories. We point to that in our own speech. We do speak of artists at war. That is the sense in which I want to use the word. I don't want to diminish this projection of what God might be. Let's think of the size of the Creation. Even if God is not All-Powerful, we have only to contemplate the vast extent of flora and fauna, the painterly touches—to offer one example—revealed in the chromatic scales of a butterfly's wing.


Well, the thing that did appeal to me about your notion of God as an artist—and, indeed, as a novelist—is that novelists have to conceive of the destinies and the forked paths that people take through their lives and so create the second phase, the third phase. In a sense, that's very much like God presiding over reincarnation—the second, third, fourth phases. God as an artist is portraying His or Her conception of the metamorphoses in each character's destiny.

Well, we are parts of God's vision, certainly. I believe that, yes—lively but seriously skewed parts of God's vision. That, I would add quickly, is because the Devil is also present. I don't presume to say exactly what part He plays in cosmic affairs or local earthly matters—but in any event, we are not pure representations of God. We are tainted, warped, even treacherous in relation to the divine projects offered us. We are torn between God and the Devil, and our own vanity can be counter to both of them. Across the centuries, human vanity has become a factor, a prodigious factor. The human ego, which has always been fearful of God's power and the Devil's—that same human ego can still separate itself into a simulacrum of omnipotent confidence. There's nothing more irritating to most of us than the feeling that we are not completely under our own power, that other forces are pushing us, external forces that are stronger than we are: “Oh, God, here comes that awful compulsion starting up again,” whatever it is—some impulse we consider unworthy of ourselves or too risky for our adventurous capacities or opposed too magnetically to our spiritual inclinations.


Advertisements for Myself,
you take sides. You say that humankind is roughly more good than evil.

No. That was my assumption about the faith some of us have in democracy, our belief that it will work because there's more good than bad in us as a human multitude. That still remains to be proven.


Still, if we are roughly more good than evil, wouldn't that signal the ultimate victory of good?

There is no guarantee. This is an existential question—which is to say, a not-yet-determined answer. To say “existential” means you are in the midst of an activity to which you cannot see the result. Rather, you are living in the midst of an intense question. I think existentialism can only be understood in that manner.


It becomes more and more clear to me all the time why courage must be the cardinal virtue in your cosmic scheme. If the forces of good are brave, strong, and daring, then there's a chance that evil will be defeated. Would the pacifism of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King play into the Devil's hands, then? Would He applaud its use?

Everything plays into the Devil's hands. We live in an immensely complicated mesh of cause and effect. I can make an argument for Gandhi and against him—that's no problem. One can also take either side for some great general: pro-Napoleon, let's say, or anti-Napoleon. Gandhi, finally, was a man of significant courage. He did something no one else had ever done before. So in that sense, he was searching for the answer to the same question I'm searching for, but at a much higher and much more dangerous level: Are we more good than bad?

In India, the answer that came back to him before he died was that we may be more bad than good. The immense riots as he came to power—those events had to be a spiritual disaster for him. So I certainly don't sneer at Gandhi, nor would I wish to systematize him by declaring, “Oh, he brought on so much that was bad because he advocated passivity.” After all, his kind of passivity demanded huge courage. And discipline. Heroic passivity. One of the things we might do well to begin to try to understand as humans will be our future need to reconstruct the essential energy contained in oxymorons. Certain oxymorons are absurdities—so many, indeed, that we feel free to dismiss all of them by saying, “It's an oxymoron.” But there are a few that are vital and valuable. One of them is “heroic passivity.” There, one's experience must serve as the arbiter. There can be heroic passivity, or quasi-heroic passivity. The latter can be a disaster. And we've all seen that: stubborn, frantic passivity—certain pacifists we'd like to throw down the stairs.


What came first in your scheme of things? Belief in courage as the cardinal virtue? Or does your vision of the divided universe require courage to be the cardinal virtue?

I would rather go back to God's experience as He or She was creating the flora and fauna of existence, all those incredible biological experiments that went on over millions of years. Plus, most crucially, the percipience gathered from the failures. Think of the excitement of God when the dinosaur came into being, the immense excitement that He had something pretty big and pretty formidable. Then it proved too big—badly designed. The record of bad design in evolution is also there, could stuff the shelves of many a library. Yet what became obvious was that animals who had courage—or those plants that had a kind of odd integrity, if you will, in terms of their environment—seemed to do better for the most part than those who didn't. Of course, there are animals—we can see this directly—who had too much courage. This notion of balance underwriting courage is what God began to search for.


Let me shift a little bit over to the dark side, to the Devil. If things are indeed getting worse—if Satan, as you seem to fear, could be winning—why would the Devil wish to destroy the world, rather than run the world as an ultimate tyrant? Wouldn't he wish to rule humans, convert them to his evil slaves and minions, rather than destroy them?

Let's start with the Devil's point of view—the word “evil” is not even present for him.


Evil is his good, as in
Paradise Lost?

He might see it that way. It's such a blatant speculation, let's have a little fun with it. My guess is that the Devil sees God as incompetent. After all, the Devil is a fallen angel, that I assume. Why? Because certain geniuses have come along who had intimations of what our origins might be. Milton was certainly one. I think Milton is as good a rule of thumb for approaching this matter of God and the Devil as anyone I've come across—homage to Milton. So I propose that the Devil's belief is that He or She could end up with a better world, a better form of existence, a more sophisticated, more intelligent, well-run notion of things. Now, what are the Devil's means? Well, our fear is that He could destroy the whole world in order to start over again. There, I'm out on the end of my mental belay—does the Devil have the same creative powers that God does to create animals, plants, humans, a system? Or is the Devil a parasite, essentially, upon God? That's a question I wouldn't presume to answer.

That's why I have more trouble dealing with the notion of the Devil than with that of God. It's relatively more direct to deal with the notion of God as the Creator.


But if you see the Devil as capable of defeating God, He must have equal powers.

Well, even at the highest level, there is such a matter as mindless destruction. When you can't win, you destroy the game. The spoiled kid who picks up the marbles comes in all forms. But such a kid hardly has to be the best player. If the Devil feels that He or She cannot gain those powers that are needed to form a new universe, the rage generated may be so intense that the next move is to destroy the works. Talk about rank speculation, let's suppose the Devil is treacherous and has sold His or Her birthright to some other god in the cosmos and will do His or Her best to turn over a paralyzed, inane, stupid, mainly destroyed world to someone who can build it up. The Devil could be a lieutenant, rather than a majordomo. In that case, the game starts all over again.

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